Blacks in Mormonism: The 1978 Revelation of Reversion and Repair (Part 1)

Todd Noall

Todd Noall

Source Expert

Todd Noall is an author and religious scholar at Mormonism Explained with a focus on the history and theology of religion.

Fact Checked by Kevin Prince

To listen to the complete episode, visit

Paul Reeve recently wrote, “In June 1978 President Spencer W. Kimball received a revelation which returned the church to its universal roots and restored what was lost: priesthood and temple admission to people of African descent, or Blacks in Mormonism. This did not mark something new as much as it reestablished a commitment to the founding principles of the restoration. It reconfirmed the church’s original universalism: that the human family in all of its diversity is equal in God’s sight, that Jesus Christ claims all flesh as his own, that he’s no respecter of persons, and that all men are privileged the one like unto the other, and none are forbidden.” In today’s episode of Church History Matters, we take a close look at the details surrounding this watershed revelation of reversion and repair. Both out on the peripheries of the church and at the heart of church headquarters within the presiding councils, we’ll see the Lord gently influencing circumstances toward the fulfillment of his purposes. Yet he waited with divine patience until all of the apostles were unified in approaching him with a desire to lift the ban. Only then would he make his will known with power. The story we trace today of how they get there under President Kimball’s gentle leadership is instructive on so many levels. Today we dive into our sixth episode in this series dealing with race and priesthood.

There is a lot to digest on this topic for sure. And I honestly think we could probably go six more episodes if we wanted to. But we want to resolve the plot. We want to make sure that people know there’s a happy ending here—that it all worked out. And so we’re going to push ourselves to do that. 

In fact, maybe we could just plug, for all those who want more details about all the things we’ve been talking about for the last five episodes, we’re going to finish it off with six today, but highly recommend you go out to Deseret Book and grab a copy of Paul Reeve’s book called, Let’s Talk About Race and Priesthood. It’s a short, little book. I’ve got it right here. Let’s see. How many pages is it? 133 pages. A super short read. I sat down this morning, I was reading it again. Probably got through half of it just this morning. So good. So if you’re hungry for more, if this podcast series has not satisfied your thirst for understanding on this issue, highly recommend you go out and get a copy of Paul Reeve’s book at Deseret Book. It’s, I think, the best thing published to date on the issue that deals with all the historical details we’ve been dealing with.

And I endorse that as well, and I want to add for what we’re talking about today—which is really Official Declaration 2 in the Doctrine and Covenants and its background on blacks and the priesthood—two wonderful resources are Edward L. Kimball’s article. It appears in BYU Studies. This is free. You can just go and find it online, and it’s—it doesn’t cost anything. It’s an article that is from BYU Studies in 2008 called “Spencer W. Kimball and the Revelation on Priesthood.” And also, linked to that is Ed Kimball—Ed Kimball was the son of Spencer W. Kimball—his book Lengthen Your Stride, which was about the presidency of Spencer W. Kimball, it has some wonderful material in it too, and one of the advantages is that Ed Kimball basically went and asked his father if he could have permission to interview everybody.

And so it’s hard to imagine getting that kind of access ever again on such a controversial and difficult subject, and so these three resources, if you’re still hungering to know more, are absolutely wonderful, and we’ll be open in saying we drew most of our material from these great scholars. So it’ll be our honor today to talk through the resolution of the plot. As was said, we’re going to look at President Kimball’s revelation. 

I’m going to back up and recap from last episode. Just get everyone up to speed. So let’s see: Last time we discussed what happened after the 1907 solidification of a church policy on black African participation in priesthood and temple. Just for reference, again, there was a longstanding tradition from 1852, but the first time it becomes codified as, like, a church policy is 1907 from the First Presidency, who stated that “No one known to have in his veins negro blood, it matters not how remote a degree, can either have the priesthood in any degree or the blessings of the temple of God, no matter how otherwise worthy he may be.” So that was the official 1907 policy from the First Presidency. If you jump to today, by the way, President Nelson is saying the color of your skin doesn’t matter at all. What matters is your devotion to God and his commandments.

And so what happens between these two points? So we talked about from 1908 to the 1960s, there were no deliberate efforts, really, to bring the gospel to blacks, right? It was a semi-official soft policy not to make any special effort to convert them. If they reached out, if they wanted to join the church, they could, but you needed to let them know that baptism was basically where their ordinance privileges would end, and in spite of that, blacks continue to join the church during that time.

In fact, we’ll talk more about what happens in Africa without any missionaries whatsoever, but let me continue to review here. The idea that priesthood and temple privileges were restricted from the very beginning with Joseph Smith by God’s will became more and more entrenched during this time period. We cited a 1949 letter from the First Presidency saying as much, and again, a 1969 First Presidency letter saying the same thing.

And so during this time period that was that—the entrenched story was that this ban began in Joseph Smith’s day by God’s will. It’s always been this way from the beginning. Priesthood holders like Elijah Ables and Q. Walker Lewis had essentially been either forgotten from memory or seen as an aberration to the original will of God that occurred because they hadn’t figured things out quite right yet. That was the story. Now, during this time period, things start to shift and change, though, right? We get the Civil Rights movement that begins really in full swing in the ‘60s.

And there’s disunity among the Twelve, in many regards, to this issue with Blacks in Mormonism, some about the Civil Rights movement itself, and certainly about the policy barring blacks from priesthood and temple privileges. So we compared and contrasted, for instance, Hugh B. Brown, who was very pro-Civil-Rights-movement, with Ezra Taft Benson, who felt like this was maybe a communist plot to try to infiltrate America. Hugh B. Brown thought that the priesthood ban was simply a policy that could be changed by vote, and so he actually put it to the Twelve to have them vote, and then Harold B. Lee really pushed strongly back against that. He wasn’t in the meeting. When he found out about it, he pushed back and said, “Listen, this is a doctrine. This is not a policy. This is a doctrine from the beginning. You can’t just vote on it. This would take a revelation from heaven.” And so we have this—different apostles seeing this differently, not seeing eye to eye. And so when President Kimball becomes president—I think we ended our last episode with him becoming president in 1973, that at the beginning of his presidency, he wrote to his son Edward, saying, “Revelations will probably never come unless they’re desired.” You’ve got to want the revelation. And he said, “I believe most revelations will come when a man is on his tiptoes, reaching as high as he can for something which he knows he needs, and then there bursts upon him the answer to his problems.” So today we want to talk about that. What does President Kimball do to begin reaching for a revelation, which we know comes on June 1, 1978, at least to the whole First Presidency and Twelve. 

So our burning question is “What led to the apostles overturning the priesthood policy?” And just like you mentioned, our key figure here is going to be President Spencer W. Kimball. But I want to mention one thing, too. It’s clear when you look at this story that the Lord is working among the highest councils of the church, but he’s also working on the periphery of the church, too.

As was mentioned, the church didn’t make an especially great effort to reach out to people of African ancestry, but they start to come into the gospel anyway. A couple years ago, for a project I was working on, I went to the Church History Museum in Salt Lake City, and they brought out a statue of the Angel Moroni that had clearly been modeled on that old, powder-blue Book of Mormon that was so common in the ‘60s and ‘70s. 

And this angel had been sculpted and placed on top of a church in Ghana. And nobody that attended the church was officially a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but Joseph Johnson, who was the leader of the congregation, had gotten a copy of The Book of Mormon and read through that and a variety of other church publications and really fell in love with the restored gospel. And he was one of those people who were waiting, writing, submitting patiently for the church to change, for the Lord to speak to the church for the policy to be relaxed. And that’s just one example. There’s a lot of others that we could cite in a number of different places where the Lord’s working on the outer edges of the church, and sometimes the outer edges of the church and the hierarchy of the church are going to touch base with each other, and that moves things forward as well. So those are the two poles of our story today, I think.

Paul Reeve points out that similar congregations formed in Nigeria. He says the—I’ll quote from Paul here: “The Holy Spirit converted over 15,000 people in Africa without missionaries or administrative oversight from Salt Lake City.” So that’s going on in the 1960s. Like, you can’t stop—but they’re just getting access to LDS books and pamphlets, and the Spirit is moving on their hearts. And 15,000 people in Africa are claiming to be quasi-latter-day Saints. They’re not even baptized, but they’re followers of Christ, and they try to emulate the examples of early church members, especially the pioneers in the United States, so pretty inspiring stuff. The Lord’s going to be moving in multiple ways during this time regarding blacks in Mormonism.

And if we’re trying to connect those two dots, there are a couple things that happen. For instance, another place is Brazil, where Brazil has a large black population. It’s clear that, you know, the church is growing rapidly in the—in Brazil and in Latin America in general, and there’s going to be a need for a temple there. The hierarchy of the church recognized a need for the temple there, and they also recognized that there was a large population down there of people of African ancestry that might not be able to attend the temple, and this is one area where the hierarchy and the periphery come together. And a few key experiences happen there.

By Todd Noall, Source Expert

Todd Noall is an author and religious scholar at Mormonism Explained with a focus on the history and theology of religion.

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.

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