Blacks in Mormonism: Black Africans in the Early Church (Part 1)

Dr. Anthony Sweat

Dr. Anthony Sweat

Source Expert

Dr. Anthony Sweat, a leading expert on Mormon beliefs, brings diverse experiences to BYU’s religion department. He boasts a BFA in art and MEd/PhD in education, along with 13 years working with religious education programs. Now a prolific author on Latter-day Saint teachings, his research focuses on improving religious education methods. Dr. Sweat and his wife Cindy reside in Springville, Utah, with their seven children.

Fact Checked by Kevin Prince

Mormon Priesthood Ban: Official Declaration 2

So now as we turn our attention from Official Declaration 1 to Official Declaration 2, are you seeing a common thread here? 

Yeah, I mean this is another declaration of a revelation received. It’s not the revelation itself, but it’s a declaration of a revelation received responding to problems, questions, concerns, culture, pain points of God’s people as a whole in dealing with this restriction on black Africans and priesthood, which Official Declaration 2 is announcing the ending of that. 

This goes back hundreds of years when slaves were first brought over from Africa to the New World and also into parts of Europe and other parts of the world. 

Yeah, and I also think it’s important for people to understand that originally, even though the declaration is renouncing our restriction on blacks in Mormonism with the priesthood and temple, Paul Reeve, who’s a historian from the University of Utah who studies this subject, he wrote this, quote, the history of the race-based priesthood and temple restrictions is best understood as an evolution away from a racially open priesthood and temples, toward a segregated priesthood and temples, and then back again. 

Sometimes I’m not sure that members of the Church understand that originally our Church was progressive for its time racially. We openly baptized people of color, black members of the Church, worshipped side by side with them, ordained priesthood upon them, where America was more segregated at the time. So, we were progressive. 

Then we became segregated, and we’ll talk about maybe some reasons why, and were in line with America, what America was doing at the time was segregation, and then as America and civil rights went on in the 50s, 60s, in particular in the 70s, then in 1978 this declaration – so, there’s this shift that’s gone on over time, and that’s important to see. 

So, as you mentioned, in the earliest days of the Church, there were black members of the Church who not just were baptized, but were given the priesthood, and officiated in that priesthood. 

Elijah Abel was in the Kirtland Temple, and Q. Walker Lewis, who, by the way, was a black convert from Massachusetts, and Brigham Young calls Q. Walker Lewis one of our best elders, is what he says about him. There’s obviously members like Jane Manning James, but there’s also – importantly understand – there are black Mormons who are slaves as well. 

Yeah, because if you baptize a slave holder, often their whole household would be baptized with them. 

You have people like Green Flake, who joins the Church in 1844, I believe, in Nauvoo, and Green Flake will be one of the first people to come into the Utah Valley, into the Salt Lake Valley, and he, and there’s three enslaved men, will be some of the first to put crops in the ground in the Salt Lake Valley. 

And so, when we come to Utah, it proposes – there’s some difficulty, and one of the difficulties is you have free black Latter-day Saints who come and gather to Utah, and you have enslaved black Latter-day Saints, and there are no laws governing Utah territory. We are out in the West on our own, and the Church has to wrestle with this difficulty of what – kind of what do we do, and what are we going to do with slavery in this area as a whole? And one of the things that they come up with is in 1852, they pass the Utah State Legislature. 

Now, that sounds like an independent political body. They’re all members of the Church and leaders of the Church. In the Utah territory in the 1850s, there is just no separation between Church and State. They pass a law called the Act in Relation to Service, which legalizes slavery in the territory. They try to make it – they try to temper it a little bit, like they say you can’t abuse your slaves, you have to feed, educate, you know. 

But one of the provisions that they make that’s interesting as kind of a compromise is they, in essence, say anybody born to slaves are not enslaved themselves, so they’re actually proposing a way to end slavery after one generation. 

Which is different. It’s a break from enslavement. 

But it does bring slavery into Utah territory and into the Church, and it’s not coincidental. We don’t know why exactly there’s a restriction on blacks and the priesthood and temple, but I also don’t think it’s coincidental that as that Act in Relation to Service is passed, we get our first public announcement from Brigham Young – In 1852. In 1852, acting as territorial governor at a legislature meeting saying, we are no longer going to confer priesthood on black Africans. 

So, then you get this long history from 1852 all the way through to 1978 with that restriction in place. So, a lot of reasons and rationale and arguments have been given as to why and when and how. The reality is we’re doing guesswork here. 

And it’s important to say, by the way, that even the Church’s own essay on this subject says that it’s not entirely clear. That’s how it’s phrased there. There is no known revelation to President Brigham Young to implement this restriction. 

Correct. And that’s important to keep in mind. So….

Fast forward in time to the 1970s, President Kimball is now the president of the Church. He’s not the first to wrestle with this question of can we give the priesthood to our black members and can we send missionaries to Africa because there are big groups of people just pleading for missionaries to be brought. 

David O. McKay wrestles with it. David O. McKay is going to wrestle with it. 

And then you get stories like Alvesio Marchins down in – he lives in Rio de Janeiro down in Rio of Brazil and he and his family are black Mormons, he’s very wealthy in a petroleum company down there. He’ll go to Sao Paulo in Brazil, he’ll donate time and money to the building of this temple knowing that when the temple’s dedicated, he and his family won’t be allowed to go inside, that his son won’t be allowed to go on a mission. 

When he goes to church in Brazil, they’re talking about the excitement of going and being sealed as families and he has to look down the road at his family and think it’s not for us. So, you get stories like that coming and it just tugs at the heartstrings. 

It is important, and if you want to read, by the way, an article that’s fascinating because Brother Griffin and I won’t be able to cover the whole history of this in this short video that it deserves, read an article called Spencer W. Kimball and the Revelation on the Priesthood. It’s written by his son Edward Kimball, it was published by BYU Studies. In my opinion, it’s the de facto article on the subject. It’s so informative to understand this history.

By Dr. Anthony Sweat, Source Expert

Dr. Anthony Sweat serves as a leading authority on the topic of “Mormonism Explained” He holds a BFA in painting and drawing from the University of Utah and achieved his MEd and PhD in curriculum and instruction at Utah State University. Before assuming his role in the religion faculty at BYU, he accumulated thirteen years of experience working with Seminaries and Institutes of Religion. Dr. Sweat is a prolific author with numerous publications centered on the teachings of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. His research primarily investigates the factors influencing effective religious education. Anthony and his spouse, Cindy, are proud parents to seven children and make Springville, Utah, their home.

Fact Checked by Mr. Kevin Prince, Source Expert

Kevin Prince is a religious scholar and host of the Gospel Learning Youtube channel. His channel has garnered over 41,000 subscribers and accumulated over 4.5 million views. Mr. Prince also created the Gospel Learning App, a reliable platform where individuals seeking truth can access trustworthy answers to religious questions from top educators worldwide.

About Mormonism Explained

Mormonism Explained is a resource that was designed to provide objective and factual information about Mormonism, its history, doctrines, and policies. Our team of researchers consults experts and primary sources to present factual information on a variety of topics relevant to the Mormon Church.