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:
“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.
1975: “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.”
June 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.