This category of posts contains articles about history and doctrine regarding race relations in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, particularly with regard to the former priesthood and temple ban imposed on black people. These articles are designed to help missionaries be informed on the subject and be prepared to respond when people investigating the Church have questions on the subject.

How to Respond to Accusations of Racism in The Book of Mormon

The Book of Mormon illustrated stories for children -- the page where the Lamanites become a dark-skinned people.I recently heard of a confrontation a man had with two missionaries where he accused them and their church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, of being racist. As evidence, the man pointed to a verse in The Book of Mormon, 2 Nephi 5:21, which reads:

“And he had caused the cursing to come upon them, yea, even a sore cursing, because of their iniquity. For behold, they had hardened their hearts against him, that they had become like unto a flint; wherefore, as they were white, and exceedingly fair and delightsome, that they might not be enticing unto my people the Lord God did cause a skin of blackness to come upon them.”

The man felt that this verse is proof that The Book of Mormon and its followers are racist against people with black skin. One of the missionaries told the man that he was taking the verse out of context and reiterated that the Church is not racist, that their message, Christ’s message, is one of love for all people, regardless of race. It was clear, however, that the young missionaries did not know how to respond to the particulars of race and skin color in The Book of Mormon. Of course, this is not an easy topic to discuss, and I think this would have been a difficult situation even for the most prepared missionary. The story made me realize that this is a topic many missionaries may face and one that certainly should be discussed on a mission preparation website so missionaries can be as prepared as possible to respond.

How to Respond? Always with the Spirit of God

How you choose to respond to the accusation of racism in The Book of Mormon will depend on a lot of factors, the most important of which should be the promptings of the Holy Ghost to you in the moment. The Spirit of God is the true teacher and testifier, so for a missionary to be effective he or she must have the Spirit. There are several things you need to do to have the Holy Spirit with you as a missionary:

  • Study the Scriptures: Studying the words of God found in the holy scriptures regularly and thoroughly will bring the Spirit of God into your life more fully and help prepare you for the discussions you will have with those learning about the Church. D&C 84:85 says, “Neither take ye thought beforehand what ye shall say; but treasure up in your minds continually the words of life, and it shall be given you in the very hour that portion that shall be meted unto every man.”
  • Obey the Mission Rules: The First Presidency states in the Missionary Handbook that living those rules will help missionaries have the Spirit of God with them. “Follow these standards. They will help you magnify your calling and protect you physically and spiritually. Use this handbook regularly. Strive to understand and live the principles and standards taught in it. Learn and live the higher law as taught by Jesus Christ (see Matthew 5; 3 Nephi 12). Strive to enjoy the companionship of the Holy Ghost, and follow His direction in living these principles and standards.”
  • Don’t Argue: Verbal battles and Bible bashing are not effective teaching methods. Such behavior is unbecoming of a missionary because anger and contention drive away the Spirit of God. 3 Nephi 11:29 says, “For verily, verily I say unto you, he that hath the spirit of contention is not of me, but is of the devil, who is the father of contention, and he stirreth up the hearts of men to contend with anger, one with another.”

When you do all within your power to have the companionship of the Holy Spirit, you will be in the best position to respond to this question about The Book of Mormon, and all other questions you’ll need to respond to on your mission. But beyond having done your spiritual preparation, I recommend that you study the issue of race in The Book of Mormon specifically in order to be able to speak intelligently on the subject, should it come up. One of the primary drivers of how you will respond to an accusation of racism in The Book of Mormon could hinge on whether you interpret the dark or black skin of the Lamanites as literal or figurative, physical or spiritual.

Is the Lamanite Dark / Black Skin Literal or Figurative?

A large number, perhaps the majority, of Latter-day Saints take the black or dark skin of the Lamanites mentioned in The Book of Mormon to be literally the physical skin pigmentation. It should be noted, however, that there is a growing body of Saints, myself included, who feel the dark or black skin is a spiritual metaphor not to be taken literally. The purpose of this article isn’t to convince you one way or the other regarding that topic, but in responding to the question of racism in The Book of Mormon, it is important to know that those two perspectives present two alternative ways of addressing the issue. If you want more detail on why I think the Lamanite dark or black skin is figurative and spiritual, then read this article on my personal website.

Literalists: The Skin is a Sign and Not the Curse Itself

Many Church leaders and manuals teach that the dark skin of the Lamanites was the sign of the curse and not the curse itself. The following quote is from Joseph Fielding Smith, 10th President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from 1970 to 1972. It is quoted in the Book of Mormon Student Manual for Institute.

“The dark skin was placed upon the Lamanites so that they could be distinguished from the Nephites and to keep the two peoples from mixing. The dark skin was the sign of the curse [not the curse itself]. The curse was the withdrawal of the Spirit of the Lord. …The dark skin of those who have come into the Church is no longer to be considered a sign of the curse. … These converts are delightsome and have the Spirit of the Lord” (Answers to Gospel Questions, comp. Joseph Fielding Smith Jr., 5 vols. [1957–66], 3:122–23).

After establishing that the changed skin color is not the curse, the Institute Manual chapter goes on to explain what the curse is–being “cut off from the presence of the Lord” (2 Nephi 5:20). The curse is caused, according to verse 21, “because of their iniquity” and “hardened … hearts.” Throughout the history of the earth, the wicked choices of men and women has always resulted in this curse of being cut off from the presence of the God.

Literalists: The Book of Mormon Teaches Racial Harmony

Ahmad Corbitt was serving as president of the Dominican Republic Santo Domingo East Mission of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints a few years ago when he wrote an article titled Revelations in the Summer of 1978 — A Personal Essay on Race and the Priesthood. Brother Corbitt appears to take the skin color references about the Lamanites literal in his four part essay and points out that The Book of Mormon contains an excellent example of a biracial nation living together in harmony.

“My friends were surprised when I told them that the Book of Mormon is, in my view, the most racially and ethnically unifying book on the earth. In response to their surprise, I shared the following overview of the Book of Mormon as it relates to the unity and harmony of the human family, irrespective of race and ethnicity. …It is miraculous that a book published in 19th-century America could include a record of a ‘fair’-skinned nation and a nation with a ‘skin of blackness’ reaching pure equality and unity. That it could rise in ever-increasing relevance to become, in my view, the most racially unifying book of scripture in the world compels both mind and soul to recognize the hand of God in its emergence.”

As evidence that The Book of Mormon is racially unifying, Brother Corbitt cites these scripture verses from it:

  • “He inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile.” 2 Nephi 26:33
  • Throughout The Book of Mormon, converted Nephites referred to Lamanites as their “brethren,” and converted Lamanites used the same term when they spoke of the Nephites. See, for example, Jacob 2:35; Jarom 1:2; Mosiah 22:3; Helaman 15:1, 3–4.
  • “And it came to pass that there was no contention in the land, because of the love of God which did dwell in the hearts of the people. And there were no envyings, nor strifes, nor tumults, nor whoredoms, nor lyings, nor murders, nor any manner of lasciviousness; and surely there could not be a happier people among all the people who had been created by the hand of God. There were no robbers, nor murderers, neither were there Lamanites, nor any manner of -ites; but they were in one, the children of Christ, and heirs to the kingdom of God. And how blessed were they!” 4 Nephi 1:15–18.
  • Mormon said on the title page that the book was written and compiled for “the convincing of the Jew and Gentile that Jesus is the Christ, the Eternal God, manifesting himself unto all nations.” The reference to “Jew and Gentile” encompasses the entire world, including all races and ethnic groups.

For those of you who interpret the dark skin of the Lamanites to be literal, these quotes by President Smith and Brother Corbitt make excellent responses to the accusation of racism in The Book of Mormon and clearly show that that is not the case.

Figurativists: It’s A Spiritual Metaphor

For those who believe that the references to dark or black skin are figurative, the response to the accusation of racism in The Book of Mormon is simpler in some ways and more difficult in other ways. Simply put, it’s not racism because The Book of Mormon is not talking about literal skin pigmentation but rather it is speaking of spiritual darkness. This explanation, however, can be a difficult thing for many people to accept.

As far as I can tell, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has no official position on whether or not the dark skin of the Lamanites is to be understood as literal or if it is a spiritual metaphor. I have searched LDS.org long and hard and there is almost no discussion of the subject. In fact, all I could find on LDS.org on this topic is one web page, the lesson in Institute manual with the quote from President Smith as referenced above, and even that doesn’t come out and state a position. Rather it appears to be simply going on the assumption that the dark skin is literal.

Again, my purpose here isn’t to convince anyone one way or the other about the literalness or figurativeness of dark skin. I think both are valid points of view. And if the Church ever publishes an official interpretation, I’ll be happy to get behind it. Until then, given that the figurative interpretation is more rare, I do want to provide a couple of pieces of evidence so people don’t think I’ve gone rogue.

Dark and Black Mean Gloomy, Impure, and Wicked

If you go look at the scriptures, in the Bible and The Book of Mormon, at the use of the adjectives dark, black, and white and the noun skin, you will see that a vast majority of the time when these words are used in reference to people, they are metaphorical and spiritual in nature.

  • Black means gloomy, dark, impure, and hidden. See Lamentations 4:8, 5:10, Job 30:30, Jeremiah 8:21, Nahum 2:10, and Joel 2:6.
  • Dark means filthy, wicked, impure, and the absence of light. See Matt 6:23, 1 John 1:5, 1 Nephi 12:23, 2 Nephi 30:6, Jacob 3:9, Mosiah 27:29, Alma 19:6 “the dark veil of unbelief”, Alma 26:3 “the Lamanites were in darkness”, and Mormon 5:15.
  • White means clean, pure, true, and righteous. See 1 Ne 13:15, 2 Nephi 30:6 (the word “pure” was “white”prior to 1981, see footnote b), Jacob 3:8, 3 Nephi 19:25 (“white as the countenance … of Jesus”), and Mormon 9:6.
  • Skin means the outward appearance and countenance. See Job 30:30, Lamentations 5:10, Jacob 3:8, Alma 3:6, and 3 Nephi 2:15.

For more detail on the meaning of these words in the scriptures, may I point you to an excellent video by Marvin Perkins. Brother Perkins’ video, titled Skin Color & Curses, outlines his research and explains that “the words black and white do not refer to literal skin color in the scriptures.” He points out that “every scripture in The Book of Mormon that made you believe that the Lamanites had a darker skin than the Nephites, every last one of them, have a new footnote on it” in the post 1981 edition of the scriptures leading readers to the Topical Guide entry on Spiritual Darkness.

The Heart Metaphor

For those hesitant to accept that the word “skin” is being used as a metaphor, may I draw your attention to metaphor often used in the scriptures that references another part of the body–the heart. A quick search on the scriptures section of LDS.org shows 1,475 occurrences of the word “heart” in the scriptures. The vast majority of those instances are clearly metaphorical and not a literal reference to the bodily organ that physical pumps blood.

  • as a man “thinketh in his heart” (Proverbs 23:7)
  • “Blessed are the pure in heart” (Matthew 5:8)
  • “Harden not your hearts” (Hebrews 3:8)
  • the “intents of his heart” (Alma 12:7)
  • the “poor in heart” (Alma 32:3)
  • “bringeth a change of heart” (Helaman 15:7)

In the scriptures, the “heart” is a reference to our inner most feelings–our metaphorical core–just like skin is a scriptural metaphor for our outward appearance. Both, of course, are metaphors we still use in society today.

Figurative Interpretation Supported by Hugh Nibley

Hugh Nibley is one of my favorite LDS authors. He was a scholar, a professor at BYU, and highly regarded within the LDS community. On the topic of Lamanite dark skin, he made the following statement:

“The Book of Mormon always mentions the curse of the dark skin in connection with and as part of a larger picture: “After they had dwindled in unbelief they became a dark, and loathsome, and a filthy people,” etc. … We are told (Alma 3:13, 14, 18) that while the fallen people “set the mark upon themselves,” it was none the less God who was marking them: “I will set a mark upon them,” etc. So natural and human was the process that it suggested nothing miraculous to the ordinary observer. …The mark was not a racial thing but was acquired by “whosoever suffered himself to be led away by the Lamanites” (Alma 3:10); Alma moreover defines a Nephite as anyone observing “the tradition of their fathers” (Alma 3:11). Which makes the difference between Nephite and Lamanite a cultural, not a racial, one. Does this also apply to the dark skin? Note that the dark skin is never mentioned alone but always as attending a generally depraved way of life, which also is described as the direct result of the curse. When the Lamanites become “white” again, it is by living among the Nephites as Nephites, i.e., adopting the Nephite way of life (3 Nephi 2:15—16).” (Lehi in the Desert; The World of the Jaredites; There Were Jaredites  >  Desert Ways and Places)

Conclusion

Hopefully, the material in the article will help you better understand the issue of race in The Book of Mormon and thus equip you to better respond if the topic comes up on your mission. My purpose here isn’t to tell you how to respond so much as it is to prepare you with knowledge and the perspective of prominent authors. Most importantly, as I stated in the beginning, my purpose is to encourage you to avoid contentious arguments, testify of the truths you know, and let the Holy Spirit guide all that you say and do as a missionary. Good luck, and God bless.

Timeline and History of Blacks Receiving the Priesthood in the LDS Church

The subject of blacks receiving the priesthood in the LDS Church is somewhat of a weighty matter, but one that most missionaries will have to deal with. The following is a timeline of major events leading up to the 1978 Revelation on the Priesthood granting black Africans who are worthy the ability to be ordained to the priesthood and receive temple ordinances. This is largely a summary of a BYU Studies article called Spencer W. Kimball and the Revelation on Priesthood by his son Edward L. Kimball.

As I read and re-read Brother Kimball’s article, I was fascinated by the process in which this revelation was sought and received. I have a testimony that the revelation came forth in the manner and according to the timing of the Lord. I know we have living prophets on the earth today and that they lead and guide this Church in a manner pleasing unto the Lord. I know the 1978 revelation granting priesthood and temple privileges to all people, regardless of race or color or ancestry, came from God and was His will. Here is some history and events leading up to that revelation:

PDF: Timeline and History of Blacks Receiving the Priesthood in the LDS Church

Elijah Abel baptism certificate 18321836: “Elijah Abel, an early black convert, pioneer, and missionary, was ordained an elder on March 3, 1836.”

“African-Americans in small numbers had been members of the Church from its days in Nauvoo. At least two black men, Walker Lewis, an elder, and Elijah Abel, a seventy, were ordained to the priesthood during Joseph Smith’s lifetime. …Elijah Abel continued his activity in the Church in Utah, even though ordination of other blacks ceased.”

1849: “The first known direct statement by a Church President that blacks were denied the priesthood came from Brigham Young in February 1849 when he said of “the Africans”: ‘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.’”

1852: “Wilford Woodruff reported that Brigham Young, speaking to the Utah territorial legislature, took personal responsibility for articulating the restriction: “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.”

1854: “Brigham Young said the curse would be removed from the posterity of Cain after all others had been redeemed and resurrected.”

1879: “Joseph F. Smith noted that Elijah Abel had two certificates identifying him as a seventy, one of them issued in Utah.”

1908: “Joseph F. Smith stated his understanding that Joseph Smith himself declared Abel’s ordination null and void. …President Smith offered no basis for that assertion. Abel did not believe that his ordination had ever been nullified.”

1931: “[Joseph Fielding Smith] said that the Bible cannot answer the question about why Negro men cannot have the priesthood, but that the Pearl of Great Price and the teachings of early Church leaders offer some information.”

1947: The First Presidency wrote: “From the days of the Prophet Joseph even until now, it has been the doctrine of the Church, never questioned by any of the Church leaders, that the Negroes are not entitled to the full blessings of the Gospel.” Further, summarizes Edward Kimball, “Its explanation, they said, was to be found in the premortal existence.”

1948: “During the George Albert Smith administration, priesthood leaders in the Philippines were authorized by the First Presidency to ordain Negrito men to the priesthood. These were native men with black skin who had no known African ancestry. Descent from black Africans only—not skin color or other racial characteristics—became the disqualifying factor.”

1949: “For Church leaders, the issue was not whether, but when. A First Presidency statement in 1949 quoted Wilford Woodruff as having made the following statement: ‘The day will come when all that race will be redeemed and possess all the blessings which we now have.’”

“George Albert Smith’s administration began sending out a consistent statement in response to inquiries: ‘It is not a matter of the declaration of a policy but of direct commandment from the Lord, on which is founded the doctrine of the Church from the days of its organization, to the effect that Negroes . . . are not entitled to the priesthood at the present time [based on] some eternal law with which man is yet unfamiliar.”

1954: “President McKay is said to have appointed a special committee of the Twelve to study the issue. They concluded that the priesthood ban had no clear basis in scripture but that Church members were not prepared for change.” Further, “President McKay had prayed for change ‘without result and finally concluded the time was not yet ripe.'”

1958: “[President McKay] authorized Church leaders to ordain Fijian men to the priesthood based on his understanding that, despite their blackness, they were not related to Africans.

1960: “Glen G. Fisher, newly released president of the South African Mission, stopped in Nigeria to visit groups that were using the Church’s name. He reported to the First Presidency that their faith was genuine. He urged sending missionaries to baptize believers and to organize branches.”

1961: “LaMar Williams, who as secretary to the Church Missionary Committee answered letters that came from Africa, was sent to Nigeria in 1961. He was met at the airport by ten pastors he had been corresponding with and discovered that they were unaware of one another. Williams returned with the names of fifteen thousand unbaptized converts who were waiting for the Church to come to them.”

1962: “Protest against the Church policy took many forms—rejection of missionaries, public demonstrations, even sabotage. In 1962, a small bomb damaged the east doors of the Salt Lake Temple and blew out some windows.”

1963: Elder [Joseph Fielding] Smith said, “you do not have to believe that Negroes are denied the priesthood because of the pre-existence. I have always assumed that because it was what I was taught, and it made sense, but you don’t have to believe it to be in good standing, because it is not definitely stated in the scriptures. And I have received no revelation on the matter.”

“The First Presidency felt keenly that they could not deny the Restoration message to those openly yearning for it. In early 1963, President McKay called LaMar and Nyal B. Williams and four other couples to serve missions in Nigeria. He set Williams apart as presiding elder of Nigeria with tentative plans to establish Sunday Schools headed by Nigerians but supervised by white missionaries who would teach and administer ordinances.”

1965: The “principle of assuming a male convert qualified to receive the priesthood unless there was evidence to the contrary was applied specifically in Brazil and soon afterward applied generally. Candidates were no longer required to provide pedigrees.”

1968: “Between 1968 and 1970 at least a dozen demonstrations or violent acts occurred when BYU athletic teams played other schools. Opposing players refused to participate or wore black armbands. One spectator threw acid, and another threw a Molotov cocktail that failed to ignite. Stanford severed athletic relations with BYU.”

1970: “The full First Presidency and Twelve jointly signed the statement and released it publicly on January 10, 1970, just a week before President McKay’s death. Like the 1949 statement, it attributed the policy to Joseph Smith and explained that the reason for the exclusion ‘antedates man’s mortal existence.’ Both statements also asserted that the ban would someday be terminated. But while the 1949 statement said that blacks would receive the priesthood “when all the rest of the children [of God] have received their blessings in the holy priesthood,” the 1969 statement omitted this idea and pointed out that the Church is founded in “the principle of continuous revelation” that could change the policy. The 1949 statement referred to a “curse on the seed of Cain,” while the 1969 statement said only that the restriction was “for reasons which we believe are known to God, but which He has not made fully known to man.”

1971: “Three black Mormons in Salt Lake City, Ruffin Bridgeforth, Darius Gray (featured in the video below), and Eugene Orr, petitioned the Church for help in keeping and reactivating the relatively small number of black members in the city. A committee of three Apostles, Elders Gordon B. Hinckley, Thomas S. Monson, and Boyd K. Packer, met with them a number of times. They suggested organizing an auxiliary unit, assigned to the Salt Lake Liberty Stake. In October, Bridgeforth, a member for eighteen years, was set apart as the president of the Genesis Group, with Gray and Orr as his counselors. Genesis members attended sacrament meeting in their geographical wards but met together monthly to hear speakers and bear testimony and weekly for Relief Society, Primary, and youth meetings.”

1972: Harold B. Lee, soon after becoming the 11th President of the Church, 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.” A few months later he said: “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.”

1974: “In his first press conference, held immediately after his ordination, President Kimball faced a number of predictable questions. In response to the restriction on priesthood for blacks, he answered straightforwardly:

[I have given it] a great deal of thought, a great deal of prayer. The day might come when they would be given the priesthood, but that day has not come yet. Should the day come it will be a matter of revelation. Before changing any important policy, it has to be through a revelation from the Lord. But we believe in revelation. We believe there are yet many more things to be revealed from the Lord. . . . We are open to the Father on every suggestion that he gives us, to every direction he gives us, to every revelation of desire for change.

12 apostles revelation blacks priesthood1975: “President Kimball referred to his counselors various statements by early Church leaders about blacks and the priesthood and asked for their reactions. Wary of ways in which the question had been divisive during the McKay administration, he asked the Apostles to join him as colleagues in extended study and supplication.”

1977: “[President] Spencer [W. Kimball] invited at least three General Authorities to give him memos on the implications of the subject. Elder McConkie wrote a long memorandum concluding that there was no scriptural barrier to a change in policy that would give priesthood to black men.”

1978: “Dallin H. Oaks, president of BYU in 1978, recalled this time of inquiry: “[President Kimball] asked me what I thought were the reasons. He talked to dozens of people, maybe hundreds of people . . . about why, why do we have this.”

“Elder James E. Faust, head of the International Mission, which included nearly all of Africa, conferred with President Kimball a number of times in early 1978 about the priesthood issue. At one meeting, Elder Faust displayed a stack of letters received from Africa during just the previous month.”

“During the months leading up to June 1978, President Kimball spoke with the Twelve repeatedly about the question, asking them to speak freely. He invited associates who had not expressed themselves in the group setting to talk with him in private. He seemed so intent on solving the problem that others worried about him. A neighbor of the Kimballs, Richard Vernon, had noticed that Spencer seemed somewhat withdrawn. Normally relaxed and comfortable with friends in his ward, Spencer responded to one inquiry that he was not feeling well and changed the topic. Many in the ward had noticed the difference and felt concerned. Many also noticed that Camilla was anxious and worried about Spencer. Elder Packer, concerned at President Kimball’s inability to let the matter rest, said, “Why don’t you forget this?” Then Elder Packer answered his own question, “Because you can’t. The Lord won’t let you.”

Feb 1978: “On returning from the airport in February 1978 after one of his trips, Spencer asked the driver to let him off at the temple and sent Camilla home alone. “I want to go to the temple for a while,” he said. “I’ll get a way home.” Some days he went more than once, often alone. Sometimes he changed into temple clothing; he always took off his shoes. He obtained a key that gave him access to the temple night or day without having to involve anyone else. Few knew, except the security men who watched over him. One of them mentioned it to President Kimball’s neighbor, who told Camilla. So she knew that much, but she had no idea what problem so occupied Spencer.”

March 9, 1978: “As the First Presidency and Twelve met in the temple, the Apostles unanimously expressed their feeling that if the policy were to change, any change must be based on revelation received and announced by the prophet. President Kimball then urged a concerted effort from all of them to learn the will of the Lord. He suggested they engage in concerted individual fasting and prayer. …In spite of his preconceptions and his allegiance to the past, a swelling certainty grew that a change in policy was what the Lord wanted. “There grew slowly a deep, abiding impression to go forward with the change.”

March 23, 1978: “Spencer reported to his counselors that he had spent much of the night in reflection and his impression then was to lift the restriction on blacks. His counselors said they were prepared to sustain him if that were his decision. They went on to discuss the impact of such a change in policy on the members and decided there was no need for prompt action; they would discuss it again with the Twelve before a final decision.”

April 20, 1978: “President Kimball asked the Twelve to join the Presidency in praying that God would give them an answer. Thereafter he talked with the Twelve individually and continued to spend many hours alone in prayer and meditation in the Holy of Holies, often after hours when the temple was still.”

May 30, 1978: “Spencer read his counselors a tentative statement in longhand removing racial restrictions on priesthood and said he had a “good, warm feeling” about it. They reviewed past statements and decided to ask G. Homer Durham, a Seventy supervising the Historical Department, to research the matter further. They also concluded to alter the pattern of their next Thursday morning meeting with the Twelve by canceling the traditional luncheon in the temple and asking the council members to continue their fasting.”

Spencer W Kimball walking in snowJune 1, 1978: “On this first Thursday of the month, the First Presidency, Twelve, and Seventies met in their regularly scheduled monthly temple meeting at 9:00 a.m., fasting. There they bore testimony, partook of the sacrament, and participated in a prayer circle. The meeting lasted the usual three and a half hours and was not notably different from other such meetings until the conclusion, when President Kimball asked the Twelve to remain.

“…He outlined to them the direction his thoughts had carried him—the fading of his reluctance, the disappearance of objections, the growing assurance he had received, the tentative decision he had reached, and his desire for a clear answer. Once more he asked the Twelve to speak. …Eight of the ten [present Apostles] volunteered their views, all favorable. President Kimball called on the other two, and they also spoke in favor. Discussion continued for two hours. …The decision process bonded them in unity.

“They then sought divine confirmation. President Kimball asked, “Do you mind if I lead you in prayer?” There were things he wanted to say to the Lord. He had reached a decision after great struggle, and he wanted the Lord’s confirmation, if it would come. They surrounded the altar in a prayer circle. President Kimball told the Lord at length that if extending the priesthood was not right, if the Lord did not want this change to come in the Church, he would fight the world’s opposition.”

“Elder McConkie later recounted, ‘The Lord took over and President Kimball was inspired in his prayer, asking the right questions, and he asked for a manifestation.’ During that prayer, those present felt something powerful, unifying, ineffable. Those who tried to describe it struggled to find words.”

Elder McConkie said: “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.”

Elder L. Tom Perry recalled: “While he was praying we had a marvelous experience. We had just a unity of feeling. The nearest I can describe it is that it was much like what has been recounted as happening at the dedication of the Kirtland Temple. I felt something like the rushing of wind. There was a feeling that came over the whole group. When President Kimball got up he was visibly relieved and overjoyed.”

President Kimball also later said, “I felt an overwhelming spirit there, a rushing flood of unity such as we had never had before.” And he knew that the fully sufficient answer had come.

June 7, 1978: “President Kimball advised his counselors in their meeting that he had decided the time had come to announce the removal of priesthood restrictions on black male members and that he had asked three of the Twelve to propose drafts of an announcement. Francis Gibbons had constructed from the three memoranda a composite draft. The First Presidency revised this draft, spending a good deal of time on the exact wording.”

June 8, 1978: “The Presidency presented to the Twelve the proposed announcement. All of the Twelve present had a chance to comment, and minor editorial changes were made. They discussed timing. Some thought it best to wait for October general conference. Others suggested making the announcement at the mission presidents’ seminar the next week. But Elder McConkie urged immediate release: “It will leak, and we have to beat Satan. He’ll do something between now and then to make it appear that we’re being forced into it.” Despite tight security, employees at the Church Office Building sensed that something important was afoot, though no one knew exactly what. Rumors had already begun to spread.”

“On the afternoon of June 8, the First Quorum of the Seventy held its regular monthly meeting. President Kimball sent a message that the First Presidency wanted to meet with all available General Authorities the next morning in the Salt Lake Temple’s fourth-floor council room, and all were to come fasting.”

June 9, 1978: “A vote [of the Seventies] approved the decision unanimously. Spencer put his hand on President Tanner’s knee and said, “Eldon, go tell the world.” President Tanner left to deliver the announcement to Heber Wolsey, managing director of Public Communications, who was standing by. President Tanner returned in a few moments and reported: “It’s done.”

“Without addressing questions of history or justification, the announcement said simply God had revealed that the day had come for granting priesthood and temple blessings to all who are worthy. The final text [was] canonized as Official Declaration–2 in the Doctrine and Covenants.”


Here is a video by Darius Gray in which he presents similar information as I have above outlining the history of blacks and the LDS Priesthood. It’s well worth a watch.

1978 Revelation on the Priesthood

This Sunday marks the 36th anniversary of Official Declaration 2 of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also known by many as the LDS Church’s 1978 Revelation on the Priesthood which allowed all black people to receive the priesthood. In future posts, I plan to go into more detail of the history of the Church’s restriction prohibiting priesthood ordinations of blacks. For today, though, I’d like to simply discuss the substance of the 1978 revelation and some of the contemporary reactions to it.

Preface to the 1978 Revelation on the Priesthood

Official Declaration 2, on the internet version, is prefaced with this comment: “During Joseph Smith’s lifetime, a few black male members of the Church were ordained to the priesthood. Early in its history, Church leaders stopped conferring the priesthood on black males of African descent. Church records offer no clear insights into the origins of this practice. Church leaders believed that a revelation from God was needed to alter this practice and prayerfully sought guidance.”

Revelation on Blacks and the Priesthood

Spencer W Kimball walking in snowOn June 1, 1978, that revelation came to the prophet and Church president, Spencer W. Kimball. The revelation removed all restrictions with regard to race and granted the priesthood to all men solely on the basis of personal worthiness. A week later, on June 8, 1978, the First Presidency sent a letter to all Church leaders throughout the world which stated:

As we have witnessed the expansion of the work of the Lord over the earth, we have been grateful that people of many nations have responded to the message of the restored gospel, and have joined the Church in ever-increasing numbers. This, in turn, has inspired us with a desire to extend to every worthy member of the Church all of the privileges and blessings which the gospel affords.

Aware of the promises made by the prophets and presidents of the Church who have preceded us that at some time, in God’s eternal plan, all of our brethren who are worthy may receive the priesthood, and witnessing the faithfulness of those from whom the priesthood has been withheld, we have pleaded long and earnestly in behalf of these, our faithful brethren, spending many hours in the Upper Room of the Temple supplicating the Lord for divine guidance.

He has heard our prayers, and by revelation has confirmed that the long-promised day has come when every faithful, worthy man in the Church may receive the holy priesthood, with power to exercise its divine authority, and enjoy with his loved ones every blessing that flows therefrom, including the blessings of the temple. Accordingly, all worthy male members of the Church may be ordained to the priesthood without regard for race or color. Priesthood leaders are instructed to follow the policy of carefully interviewing all candidates for ordination to either the Aaronic or the Melchizedek Priesthood to insure that they meet the established standards for worthiness.

We declare with soberness that the Lord has now made known his will for the blessing of all his children throughout the earth who will hearken to the voice of his authorized servants, and prepare themselves to receive every blessing of the gospel.

Witness to the Revelation

Bruce R. McConkie of the Twelve was present when the priesthood revelation was received and spoke of that moment:

“The Spirit of the Lord rested upon us all; we felt something akin to what happened on the day of Pentecost and at the Kirtland Temple. From the midst of eternity, the voice of God, conveyed by the power of the Spirit, spoke to his prophet. The message was that the time had now come to offer the fullness of the everlasting gospel, including celestial marriage, and the priesthood, and the blessings of the temple, to all men, without reference to race or color, solely on the basis of personal worthiness. 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.” (Kimball, Spencer W.; et al. (1981), Priesthood, Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book, pp. 127–128, ISBN 0877478597, OCLC 7572974)

Reaction to the Revelation

Elder Dallin H. Oaks, current member of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles, and President of the LDS Church owned Brigham Young University at the time in 1978, had this reaction to the revelation.

I had many times that my heart ached for that, and it ached for my Church, which I knew to be true and yet blessings of that Church were not available to a significant segment of our Heavenly Father’s children. …Nobody was more relieved or more pleased when the word came. I remember where I was when I learned that the priesthood would be available to all worthy males, whatever their ancestry. I was at a mountain home that our family had purchased to have a place of refuge. I had my sons up there, and we were digging. …The phone rang in the house. I went inside, and it was Elder Boyd K. Packer. He said: “I have been appointed to advise you as a representative of the academic people, many of whom have been troubled by the ban on the priesthood, professors, and students, and so on. As president of Brigham Young University and as their representative, I’ve been appointed to advise you that the revelation has been received that all worthy male members will be eligible to receive the priesthood, whatever their ancestry.” I thanked him, and I went outside and I told my boys, and I sat down on that pile of dirt and cried. And I still feel emotion for that moment. I cried for joy and relief that the Lord had spoken through His prophet, that His blessings were now available to all: the blessings of the priesthood, the blessings of the temple, and the blessings of eternity. That’s what we desired. I praise God for it.” (See Elder Dallin H. Oaks’ Reaction to Priesthood Revelation on MormonNewsroom.org)

The Church in Africa Prior to the Revelation

Prior to the 1978 revelation on the priesthood, there were a few black African converts. These people had learned 0f the gospel through various means, and some were even baptized. But Church leaders were reluctant to formally establish the Church or missionary work in these “areas of the world where the full blessings of the gospel could not be conferred upon worthy Church members” (Our Heritage: A Brief History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Chapter 10).

“In 1960, Glen G. Fisher returned from South Africa after serving as mission president there. The First Presidency asked him to stop in Nigeria and investigate groups which had organized themselves into church units and had taken the name of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. …Unbaptized converts in Africa received Church literature and inspired direction through the years until 1978. Often these devoted people went to great lengths to communicate with Church headquarters.”

One such pioneer was Joseph W. B. Johnson of Ghana. “Brother Johnson was converted after prayerfully reading the Book of Mormon in 1964.” Said he, “from that day onward, I was constrained by the Spirit to go from street to street to deliver the message that we had read from the Book of Mormon.” “When the missionaries arrived fourteen years later, there were already many unbaptized congregations that Brother Johnson had organized, calling themselves The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” (see Gospel Pioneers in Africa by E. Dale LeBaron)

Nigeria Mormon Baptisms 1978

Response in Africa After the Priesthood Revelation

“After the Proclamation on the Priesthood on June 9, International Mission President James E. Faust assigned Ted Cannon and Merrill Bateman to visit Africa and try to locate the various groups and their members. Ted and Merrill Bateman departed for Accra, Ghana on August 12, 1978. One of the first groups they visited was in Cape Coast, Ghana.” In Calabar, Nigeria, “Ted and Brother Bateman were miraculously led to Ime Eduok who introduced them to many of the leaders they were seeking. After two weeks in West Africa, Ted and Brother Bateman agreed that their recommendation to the First Presidency would be to send missionaries.”

“After many baptisms in Nigeria, the Cannons and Mabeys made their way to Ghana where they met with leaders of congregations that had already been preaching from the Book of Mormon and meeting in organized congregations for over a decade. The Cannons and Mabeys taught lessons to groups organized by Dr. R.A.F. Mensah, Clement Osekre, and Joseph Billy Johnson.”

“The first official baptisms in Ghana took place on December 9, 1978 at a beach just east of Cape Coast. This historic baptism of 89 people took place on a beach …[and] confirmations took place at water’s edge. The confirmations continued into the night, under the glow of the moon.”

“Back in Nigeria, …they interviewed and baptized 182 people, confirmed them, and organized them into four branches, all in one day. By the time they left Africa, the Cannons and Mabeys had baptized 1,725 people, and organized 35 branches and 5 districts.” (See Cannon Ties to West Africa go back to 1790 on africawest.lds.org)

The Church among Blacks and Africans Today

The Church does not keep statistics on the race or ethnicity of its members, so exact figures on the number of black Mormons is not possible to obtain. Some estimate there to be between 350,000 and 500,000 members of the Church with black African heritage.  If so, that would represent about 3% of Church membership world wide.

The organization of the Church encourages complete racial integration. Church leaders today unequivocally condemn all racism, past and present (see the Church’s statement on Race and the Priesthood). Where there are Mormons of various racial backgrounds in a community, they attend church and worship together. A black bishop may lead a mostly white ward or stake, or vice versa; there are no racially segregated congregations.

The Church has said that “Africa is one of the fastest growing areas of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints with some 320,000 members” as of February 2011, with “more than 900 congregations across the continent” (see Mormons in Africa: A Bright Land of Hope). There are three operating LDS temples on the African continent–Aba Nigeria, Accra Ghana, and Johannesburg South Africa–with two more planned for Durban South Africa and Kinshasa Democratic Republic of the Congo (see ldschurchtemples.com/maps).

The Church’s Statement on Race and the Priesthood

Black men giving priesthood blessingSince The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints released a new statement on Race and the Priesthood in December 2013, there has been a lot of discussion on the subject. Many people have rightly praised the statement for setting straight some false concepts that had crept into the Church. Many, in my view, have also jumped to some conclusions that may or may not be well founded.

Below is a summary of the Chursh’s statement on Blacks and the Priesthood, and as a bonus, some of my thoughts and analysis on the subject. Most important is that future missionaries read the statement, do some follow up study of the scriptures and other sources cited, and be prepared to discuss the subject when and if it comes up during their missions.

Download a PDF copy of the Church’s
statement on Blacks and the Priesthood

Highlights from the Church’s Statement on Blacks and the Priesthood

The statement from the Church on Blacks and the Priesthood is 4 pages (6 with footnotes). I encourage you to read the statement in its entirety, but here are some of the quotes that stood out to me most:

  • “For much of its history—from the mid-1800s until 1978—the Church did not ordain men of black African descent to its priesthood or allow black men or women to participate in temple …ordinances.”
  • “During the first two decades of the Church’s existence, a few black men were ordained to the priesthood. One of these men, Elijah Abel, also participated in temple ceremonies. …There is no evidence that any black men were denied the priesthood during Joseph Smith’s lifetime.”
  • “In 1852, President Brigham Young publicly announced that men of black African descent could no longer be ordained to the priesthood. …subsequent Church presidents restricted blacks from receiving the temple [ordinances]. …Over time, Church leaders and members advanced many theories to explain the priesthood and temple restrictions. None of these explanations is accepted today as the official doctrine of the Church.”
  • “President Young said that at some future day, black Church members would ‘have [all] the privilege and more’ enjoyed by other members.”
  • “The justifications for this restriction echoed the widespread ideas about racial inferiority that had been used to argue for the legalization of black ‘servitude’ in the Territory of Utah. According to one view, which had been promulgated in the United States from at least the 1730s, blacks descended from the same lineage as the biblical Cain, who slew his brother Abel. Those who accepted this view believed that God’s ‘curse’ on Cain was the mark of a dark skin.”
  • “The curse of Cain was often put forward as justification for the priesthood and temple restrictions. Around the turn of the century, another explanation gained currency: blacks were said to have been less than fully valiant in the premortal battle against Lucifer and, as a consequence, were restricted from priesthood and temple blessings.”
  • In the 1950s, “Church President David O. McKay emphasized that the restriction extended only to men of black African descent. The Church had always allowed Pacific Islanders to hold the priesthood, and President McKay clarified that black Fijians and Australian Aborigines could also be ordained to the priesthood.”
  • “Given the long history of withholding the priesthood from men of black African descent, Church leaders believed that a revelation from God was needed to alter the policy… After praying for guidance, President McKay did not feel impressed to lift the ban.”
  • “While there were no limits on whom the Lord invited to ‘partake of his goodness’ through baptism, the priesthood and temple restrictions created significant barriers, a point made increasingly evident as the Church spread in international locations with diverse and mixed racial heritages.”
  • “Church leaders pondered promises made by prophets such as Brigham Young that black members would one day receive priesthood and temple blessings. In June 1978, after ‘spending many hours in the Upper Room of the [Salt Lake] Temple supplicating the Lord for divine guidance,’ Church President Spencer W. Kimball …received a revelation. …The revelation rescinded the restriction on priesthood ordination. It also extended the blessings of the temple to all worthy Latter-day Saints, men and women.”
  • “The Church began priesthood ordinations for men of African descent immediately, and black men and women entered temples throughout the world. Soon after the revelation, Elder Bruce R. McConkie, an apostle, spoke of new ‘light and knowledge’ that had erased previously ‘limited understanding.'”
  • “Today, the Church disavows the theories advanced in the past that black skin is a sign of divine disfavor or curse, or that it reflects actions in a premortal life; that mixed-race marriages are a sin; or that blacks or people of any other race or ethnicity are inferior in any way to anyone else. Church leaders today unequivocally condemn all racism, past and present, in any form.”
  • “The Church proclaims that redemption through Jesus Christ is available to the entire human family on the conditions God has prescribed. It affirms that God is ‘no respecter of persons’ and emphatically declares that anyone who is righteous—regardless of race—is favored of Him.”

What the Church’s Statement Says and Does Not Say

The statement is clear on where the Church stands on this issue today. Race and national descent is not a factor in receiving the priesthood or receiving temple ordinances. The whole human family are children of God, he loves them all equally and invites all people, regardless of race or national origin, to come unto Christ, receive the ordinances of salvation, and partake of the blessings of the gospel here on earth and in Heaven.

The statement is sufficiently vague, though, on the history of the practice and particularly the reason for the priesthood and temple restrictions. While it is easy to jump to other conclusions, the Church gives no official reason of why the priesthood restriction was in place. While it denounces previous explanations put forth by Church members and leaders, such as racial inferiority, lack of premortal valiance, and a curse as manifested by dark skin, no official explanation for the former policy is given.

The discussion of the reason for the restriction is sufficiently vague as to allow multiple interpretations. It would be easy for readers to interpret the statement as saying that the Church today believes that Brigham Young was wrong in putting the priesthood restriction in place. Yet the article never comes out and says that the priesthood restriction was improper or racist. In fact, it goes to great length to point out that the restriction was not based solely on race, but on a combination of race and nationality (Africa descent).  Therefore, one could also interpret the statement as saying there is no reason to believe the policy was not a result of divine inspiration to Brigham Young and the subsequent prophets and presidents of the Church.

The full reason for the restriction may never be known while we live on this earth. Each one of you will have to decide for yourself, if knowing the reason is important to you. What’s important to me is that we have the light and knowledge of the gospel of Jesus Christ through the scriptures, living prophets, and inspiration from the Holy Spirit. The Lord works in mysterious ways, and he is certainly doing a marvelous work and a wonder on the earth today. The blessings of the gospel are infinite and they can be enjoyed on earth and last throughout eternity. And missionaries of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have the wonderful opportunity to bring these blessings to all the peoples of the earth.