Blacks in Mormonism: The 1978 Revelation of Reversion and Repair (Part 2)

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

President Kimball begins reaching almost as soon as he becomes prophet in 1973, which is going to include work of studying out the issue in his own mind. He wanted to learn the history of the Mormon priesthood ban for himself. President McKay had done a similar research that had concluded similarly, that there was not a scriptural basis for the restriction.

President Kimball wanted to understand the various justifications that had been offered over the years. He wanted to dig into this issue in depth. But he said that one of his biggest obstacles was overcoming his own preconceived opinions and understanding his own assumptions, as well as trying to work behind the scenes to build consensus among other church leaders.

About himself, he said, “I had a great deal to fight: Myself, largely, because I had grown up with this thought that Negroes should not have the priesthood, and I was prepared to go all the rest of my life until my death and fight for it and defend it as it was.” So there’s an internal battle in terms of his own prejudices. And I think he’s so humble to admit that and to say that’s what a large part of what he was trying to fight. It’s interesting to consider his life. I made a little timeline once just to say, OK, what was it like being Spencer W. Kimball growing up in the church? And this is not going to be very complete at all, but he was born in 1895. When Spencer W. Kimball was three years old, it was already believed in the minds of—like, church leaders were already teaching that the priesthood restriction on blacks was a doctrine of the church that came from Joseph Smith and was therefore from God.

He was 12 years old in 1907 when the policy became official. He’s 13 years old when early black priesthood holders are essentially forgotten from church memory with the memory slip of Joseph F. Smith we talked about, which happened that same year. So all during his impressionable teenage years, his young adult years on into adulthood, there weren’t really any competing narratives on this issue. And so when the issue comes up, which is not very often, but when it does come up, all Spencer Kimball had heard and learned were the false doctrines about the curse of Cain and the premortal less valiancy and the false history that this ban could be traced back to Joseph Smith and the beginnings of the church. And so I can appreciate, at least just to try to empathize as I read this history. Like, when he says, “I had to fight and overcome my own understandings, my own prejudices,” that had been taught from his youth, I think that was actually quite real, you know?

To paraphrase Yoda, he had to unlearn what he had learned, right? There was some unlearning that needed to happen for Spencer W. Kimball, and so he’s going to model what needs to happen for the whole church and which will happen gradually after the revelation towards blacks and Mormons. He’s fighting against his tendency that he’s had his whole life to defend the teachings of the church and not to question them or submit to the need for change. There’s a letter that he writes to his son, I think we quoted part of this last time, where in 1963, he says, “The conferring of priesthood and declining to give the priesthood is not a matter of my choice, nor of President McKay’s. It’s the Lord’s program. When the Lord’s ready to relax the restriction, it will come whether there’s pressure or not. This is my faith. Until then I shall try to fight on.” And then he said, “I’ve always prided myself as being about as unprejudiced as to race as any man. I think my work with the minorities would prove that, but I’m so completely convinced that the prophets know what they’re doing and that the Lord knows what he is doing that I’m willing to let it rest there.” And that work with minorities that he mentions there has to do with his background. He grows up in Arizonafairly close to the Navajo Indian reservation, and he spends a lot of his ministry—he’s a stake president there before he’s called as an apostle—ministering to people who are of different races and integrating them into the church and working with them. So you could see a lifetime of preparation for him to be the person that receives the revelation, but there’s also his own personal choice. I mean, he could have gone either way based on his upbringing, but when he becomes president of the church, the issue kind of lands squarely in his lap. He has to finally deal with it. And he really does want to know the Lord’s will on it. You shared that lovely quote from him, “Revelations rarely come unless they’re desired,” and it seems like this is a person who really wanted to know the Lord’s will on the matter.

And this is from Ed Kimball’s book, Lengthen Your Stride. He says, “When President Kimball became a church president, few people expected any change. Probably President Kimball himself did not. But one huge factor was different. Now the ultimate responsibility for the policy fell to him. His duty was no longer to be a loyal supporter,” which he was very good at. He said, “He had the direct personal responsibility to discover the Lord’s will by study, faith, and prayer, and he was determined not to be motivated by earthly pressures.” And then one more: He says, “President Kimball said in a news interview that his predecessors had sought the Lord’s will about the priesthood policy, and for whatever reason, the time had not come. But now that the ultimate responsibility was his, it was no longer enough to rely on the understandings of previous prophets or to wait for the Lord to take the initiative. He said he wanted to “find out firsthand what the Lord thought about it.” I think he’s quoting his father there. He wanted to find out firsthand what the Lord thought about it.

And so he was very orthodox. He was always orthodox. When people would push him on it, he always gave the answer that “At some point blacks will get the priesthood. We don’t know when that is. That’s the Lord’s business. It’s the Lord’s program.” He always used the word program. It’s the Lord’s program, and the Lord will be able to work that out, whenever that time may be. He was always loyal to that, right? And he was never—he was never trying to agitate for change as a member of the Twelve. But once he becomes the president, once the buck stops with him, once it actually is his legitimate right to find out the Lord’s will he’s set to the task.

And you mentioned by study and also by faith. We ought to talk about some of the study. There’s some scholarship that’s influential in leading President Kimball down this road, too. Probably the biggest thing is a 1973 article by Lester Bush, who is a member of the church, also black member of the church, writes an article called “Mormonism‘s Negro Doctrine: A Historical Overview.” We’ve talked about this, but a lot of the perpetuation of the LDS priesthood ban had been based around the idea that it originated with Joseph Smith. A lot of people basically said, “Yeah, this has been something we’ve done from the beginning.”

Lester Bush’s article basically traces the sources available and points out that it didn’t start with Joseph Smith, that—exactly what we outlined in one of our earlier episodes, that Joseph Smith didn’t really seem to have any kind of policy when it came to temples and when it came to race or anything like that, and that article starts to circulate among the leaders of the church in particular. Hartman Rector told Lester Bush that he believed many of the general authorities had read the article, and Marion D. Hanks, who’s another general authority at this time—he’s a member of the Seventy—on multiple occasions said the article had far more influence than the brethren would ever acknowledge. It started to stir the pot and change things. He says it started to “foment the pot.” It started to stir up their thinking as to, “Have we been resting on some assumptions that might not be accurate?” And challenging those assumptions of the origins, which nobody seems to have been doing very seriously.

So Mark E. Petersen, for instance, called President Kimball’s attention to an article that proposed the priesthood policy had begun with Brigham Young and not Joseph Smith, and told President Kimball that maybe that’s a factor that they should take into account, too. Because I think the two things that are pushing and pulling the leaders of the church here are they don’t want to seem like they’re abandoning the previous leaders of the church, especially Joseph Smith, but they also want this to change. And so Lester Bush’s article seemed to open up a little bit of a gap for them to start thinking in different directions about how the policy had been put into place and therefore how the policy could change. And if we can get a copy of that, I’ll link Lester Bush’s article to our show notes. It’s actually fantastic. That was 1973, and it still holds up under historical scrutiny.

I mean, it is—and he was not even a professional historian. I think he was an army medic, if I remember right. But he did some phenomenal scholarship. Actually, he was responding—as kind of interesting backstory—to a guy named Steven Taggart’s 1970 article, where he hypothesized that it started in Joseph Smith’s day in Missouri as a result of the Missouri persecutions, that the church backed off on blacks having full participation in the church due to the persecution in Missouri, and that it had begun in Joseph Smith’s day. And so this is Lester Bush saying, “I don’t think so.” So Lester Bush was not targeting the leadership of the church. He wasn’t trying to say, “Hey, you guys should change. Look at this scholarship.” What he was saying was a response to a 1970s hypothesis that he felt did not hold up under close scrutiny. And so he just wanted to lay the whole story bare, and it’s phenomenal. So we’ll link that to the show notes.

Now that’s the historical boundary that they’ve got to cross. We talked about how the other major compelling thing was scripture. Do the scriptures say this is something? You mentioned that little discussion that we sometimes miss the nuance on as to, “Is this a doctrine, or is it a policy,” doctrine is generally found in the scriptures. Policy is extrapolation from the scriptures. And another thing that happens is that President Kimball approaches the scriptures. Now, this has happened under President McKay, too. President McKay asked several apostles to study the scriptures and say, “Is there justification for the policy?” – this policy referring to the ban of blacks and the priesthood. In 1977, Spencer W. Kimball asked at least three general authorities to go back and read the scriptures and write a memo. In his article, Ed Kimball names these three general authorities as Boyd K. Packer, Thomas S. Monson, and, here’s a surprise, Bruce R. McConkie.

I say that’s a surprise because I think there’s a popular perception in the world today that Elder McConkie was gung-ho about this policy. And he did defend the policy, but we should note also that he was one of the three that Spencer W. Kimball asked, “Is there a scriptural barrier in changing this policy?” And I think in President Kimball’s mind, Elder McConkie was probably the most conservative member of the quorum. I could be wrong.

Yeah, I’d say him and Mark E. Petersen. They’ve been the most vocal in, like, adamantly, like, defending the church’s position at that time. I think the thinking is if Elder McConkie is OK with this, then we’ve got a strong ally on our side, someone who is so interested in defending church policy. And apparently all three of them come back and basically cite that there’s no justification for this in the scriptures.

We went over the scriptures in one of our previous episodes, but this becomes a deep matter of discussion among the Quorum of the Twelve, and the reason why I mention Elder McConkie is Boyd K. Packer, in a talk, says specifically, “President Kimball spoke in public of his gratitude to Elder McConkie for some special support he received in the days leading up to the revelation on priesthood.” So of the three, President Kimball specifically notes that Elder McConkie was really helpful. And knowing Elder McConkie, his inclinations and his expertise, I’m guessing that has to do with going to him and saying, “Yeah, based on my reading of the scriptures, this is something that we can seek the Lord to change.

That he gave his green light. And he gives a very great talk after the revelation’s given, too, speaking of Elder McConkie. I think Elder McConkie sometimes gets a bad rap. Some people don’t like how dogmatic he often was, kind of how, like, hard the line was that he toed on some issues. His tone, maybe, was really strong, maybe overbearing for some, but I think that’s a misunderstanding of Elder McConkie. I think he was actually quite humble and willing to defend what he understood was true. That’s it. Because when the revelation does come, he flips 180. There’s that great, famous line that he says in the talk he gives in August, the revelation happens in June. In August, he gives a talk, and he says, “Forget everything that I have said. Or George Q. Cannon has said, or Brigham Young has said.”

Here’s the quote right here: He says, “Forget everything that I have said, or what President Brigham Young or President George Q. Cannon or whomsoever has said in days past that is contrary to the present revelation.” And then listen to this humility: “We spoke with a limited understanding and without the light and knowledge that has now come into the world.” That’s humble. That’s not a guy who’s just—he’s not trying to be a stick in the mud. Elder McConkie would just fiercely defend what he knew to be true. And when the revelation corrected him, he flipped 180—instantly is “Listen. Forget everything. Let’s all now line up to be in harmony with this new revelation,” so props to Elder McConkie, actually.

So President Kimball is working to build consensus among the apostles behind the scene. That’s one of his real gifts and strengths. This is huge. And we’ve also dealt with historical barriers, scriptural barriers. Everybody’s moving towards a point to where they feel good about asking the Lord for the revelation on blacks in Mormonism. There’s a couple things happening on the periphery of the church, too: 1975, we already mentioned this, but the São Paulo temple is announced. Helvécio Martins, who is a black African Brazilian, is called to be head of the Public Affairs Committee for the São Paulo Temple. Helvécio Martins and his son Marcus Martins, who used to be the head of Religious Education at our sister school, BYU–Hawaii, are both key figures in this, too. So they’re at the cornerstone ceremony of the São Paulo temple, and President Kimball actually invites Helvécio Martins to come up and sit next to him on the stand, and then they have an interesting exchange. And I think you have that right there.

So President Kimball says, “Do you remember what I told you when we first met years ago?” And Helvécio says, “Yes, I remember. You told me about being faithful.” So apparently there had been a conversation about, “I’m black. What do I do?” And President Kimball just told him, “Be patient. Be faithful. Just focus on being faithful. That’s all that matters,” at that time. And so then President Kimball says, “Yeah, that’s right.” And he repeats it. He says, “Just remain faithful, and you’ll receive all the blessings.” And so this is 1977. We’re getting close.

And the São Paulo Brazil temple is going to be dedicated actually that next year. And yeah, there’s going to be many Brazilians, like Helvécio Martins, who have put a ton of effort and donation and time to help the temple get built and, under current policy, would be unable to actually attend the temple, right?

LeGrand Richards actually says this was a huge, directly consequential factor in the brethren considering the removal of the priesthood-temple ban. Elder LeGrand Richards cites the Brazil temple as a major point, that in some places there’s like 80 percent of the population had some ties back to Africa, genealogically, and so there’s going to be a large number of Brazilians who will not be able to attend the temple, and that weighed on the brethren’s mind.

So 1975, the temple’s announced. 1978 the revelation is given, and it’s going to remove the ban. So at least in Elder LeGrand Richards’ mind, the temple was a huge consideration for the brethren about the removal of the ban.

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.

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.