Blacks in Mormonism: The 1978 Revelation of Reversion and Repair (Part 3)

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

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Let’s actually get to 1978. First thing, a third factor. So we’ve talked about the historical boundaries, the scriptures, the peripheral events on the edge of the church. Now let’s talk about what’s happening with President Kimball and all his conversations with his son about the LDS priesthood ban. He talks about going to the temple.

He spent many days in the temple, and “through the sleepless hours of the night,” Ed Kimball writes, “praying and turning over in his mind all the consequences, perplexities, and criticisms that a decision to extend the priesthood would involve. Spencer gradually found that all these complications and concerns dwindling in insignificance. They did not disappear, but they seemed to decline in importance,” and he’s getting to the point where he‘s comfortable with—in fact, he cites a meeting of March 9, 1978 in the temple, the First Presidency and the Twelve meet together, and the apostles unanimously say, “We would be OK with the policy to change,” but the change had to be based on revelation and announced by the prophet.

So he’s achieved unanimity, I guess you’d say, among the Twelve. As to the need for revelation and their acceptance if the change was made by revelation. But they’re also clear in saying, “This is such a big deal that we need a revelation to change it. President Kimball was well aware of how divisive this issue was under the administration of President David O. McKay, because he was an apostle during that time, right? And he knew that discord does not invite revelation, so he was aiming to maintain harmony among the brethren as this question was explored. He knew that unity invites revelation, like when the Lord promised revelation to church leaders in D&C 42:3. Once they became, as he said, “agreed as touching this one thing.” So this is, no doubt, why President Kimball wisely sought to involve and include them in the process.

Like you mentioned, he reached out to them and asked them to help him in the study and application of scripture to this problem. He asked them at this very meeting you’re talking about to make this a matter of personal fasting and prayer. Specifically, he humbly invited them, saying, “Would you brethren begin to pray and fast about this with me?” Now, this is March 9, 1978. So he’s trying to foster unity on this divisive topic, right? So as to invite revelation because he knows that to move forward on this, we can’t have any schisms among the brethren. He can’t have, like, seven of the apostles on his side and three going rogue and two abstaining or whatever, you know, to have the best chance at success here. He needed the apostles to be as united as they could be on this issue. If they could be humbly united on this issue and then collectively approach the Lord together—ooh—then they could expect something special here.

It’s just like Elder McConkie would later describe after the fact. He said, speaking of the apostles, “When we seek the Lord on a matter with sufficient faith and devotion, he gives us an answer.” And then he says, ”You’ll recall that the Book of Mormon teaches that if the apostles in Jerusalem had asked the Lord, he would’ve told them about the Nephites. But they didn’t ask, and they didn’t manifest that faith, and they didn’t get an answer.” And then he says, “One underlying reason for what happened to us,” speaking of the June 1 revelation on blacks in Mormonism, “is that the brethren,” plural, “asked in faith. They petitioned and desired and wanted an answer, President Kimball in particular.” So that’s what President Kimball’s driving at. He knows what needs to happen in the hearts of each of the apostles in order for heaven to open and for this revelation to be received.

So now let’s watch this play out. About two weeks later, on March 23, President Kimball confides to his counselors that he had spent much of the previous night in reflection on this issue and that his impression was to lift the restriction on blacks. Wow. So he’s got a private, personal impression on March 23, 1978, to lift the ban.

But he only tells his counselors, and according to Ed Kimball’s account here, his counselors said that they were prepared to sustain him if that was his decision. Then they went on to discuss what that would entail and what changes would need to be made in the church, but after discussing this amongst themselves, they, the First Presidency, determined together, now catch this, “that they would need to discuss it again with the Twelve before a final decision was made.” Isn’t that interesting? His counselors say, “We’re prepared to sustain you if that’s your decision,” and he’s saying, “Mm, we need to discuss this again with the Twelve before a final decision is made.” See, President Kimball was determined that the Twelve be as united as possible on this. He wasn’t just going to try to ram this through, right? He knew that approach just wouldn’t work.

So for the next several weeks, he continues to pray for the Twelve, and he asked the Twelve to continue to personally pray and fast about this themselves. Then, on May 4, less than a month away from the big revelation on June 1, Elder LeGrand Richards said that as they were talking about this issue in quorum, that he looked up and saw who he was convinced to be President Wilford Woodruff. He’d been dead for many years.

There was President Wilford Woodruff, at least LeGrand Richards saw him. In fact, let me quote him directly: he said, “I saw during the meeting a man seated in a chair above the organ, bearded and dressed in white, having the appearance of Wilford Woodruff.” And then he said, “I’m not a visionary man. This was not imagination. It might be that I was privileged to see him because I’m the only one here who had ever seen President Woodruff in person. Interesting. You know, and perhaps the connection with Wilford Woodruff is that it was under his presidency that plural marriage had ended, which was a major shift in terms of how things were done in the church, right?

So perhaps his presence there was suggestive that it was time for another major shift to happen. And as we’ll see, it’s about to. So May 4, one of the apostles, LeGrand Richards, sees President Woodruff during their quorum discussion on this topic. Then jump ahead to May 25—now we’re getting real close to that June 1 date—and Elder Mark E. Petersen tells President Kimball about what he’s noticed in an article, which we assume has to be that Lester Bush article. He tells President Kimball that he found in that article that the priesthood policy actually began with Brigham Young, not Joseph Smith. So that’s significant to Elder Peterson.

Then May 30, President Kimball reads to his counselors a tentative statement that he had written in longhand removing the Mormon priesthood ban. He said that he had a good, warm feeling about it. They then reviewed past statements of previous prophets and decided to ask G. Homer Durham, who was a Seventy who supervised the historical department at the time, if he would research further the historical basis of the policy. This is May 30. We’re one day away from the actual revelation. He’s still asking for people to do historical research and try to help him out here.

OK, so then we’ve got to talk about the next day in detail here. Do you want to pick up there? So it’s Thursday, June 1, 1978. They meet in the temple. That’s their normal temple meeting day. So nobody expected anything spectacular to happen this day. They get together and have their normal meeting, which was three and a half hours long. They’re not discussing the priesthood policy at that point.

A couple of details we ought to add in just to fill in the story. The meeting had ended. In fact, Ed Kimball notes that two members of the quorum had already left to change out of their temple clothes, and President Kimball called them back. And also, there’s two apostles that aren’t with them. Delbert Stapley’s in the hospital. Mark E. Petersen’s in South America, so ten of the twelve are present. You’ve got the First Presidency. Counselors have already said, “We’ll support you if you get the revelation.” And then President Kimball actually looks at them, and this surprised me, but President Kimball said, “Brethren, I have canceled lunch for today. Would you be willing to remain in the temple with us? I would like you to continue to fast with me. I’ve been going to the temple almost daily for many weeks now, sometimes for hours, entreating the Lord for a clear answer. I have not been determined in advance what the answer should be, and I will be satisfied with a simple yes or no, but I want to know. Whatever the Lord’s decision, I will defend it to the limits of my strength, even to death.” So he talks to them and says, “We’re going to fast, and we’re going to pray.” And then they start to have discussions, and he asks the Twelve to share their opinion. He notes that, notably, Bruce R. McConkie speaks in favor of the change, and he says, “There’s no scriptural reason. There’s nothing stopping us from making the decision.”

Then the next one to talk is another person we sometimes associate with being a hard-line defender of the church, that’s Boyd K. Packer, quoted D&C 1:24, 49, 56:4–5, 58:32, all in support of the change, and then eight other members of the Twelve share their views, all in favor, but the discussion goes on for about two hours, according to one account that’s there.

I love that President Packer, who was there, he said, a few weeks after this happens, he says, “One objection from one member of the Twelve would have deterred President Kimball. It would’ve made him put it off. So careful was he that it had to be right.” Like, the unity had to be there. So if even one of the apostles objected, like, he would’ve said, “All right, let’s table this.” And so the fact that he goes around, eight of the ten volunteered to say their feelings, and then the other two who hadn’t spoken yet, he asked them, and they also speak in favor of lifting the ban on blacks in Mormonism. It’s all unanimous.

I love the language here, but President Kimball says, “Do you mind if I lead you in prayer?” That’s so good. So he’s the president of the church. They’ve all signaled their willingness. “Do you mind if I lead you in prayer?” They surround the altar in a prayer circle. President Kimball starts praying. This is the way Ed Kimball writes it: “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 to 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.’” And the manifestation is recorded by several different people. There’s a number of different voices here. I’ll just read what Elder McConkie said. Elder McConkie said, “It was as though another day of Pentecost came.”

“On the day of Pentecost in the Old World, it’s recorded that cloven tongues of fire rested upon the people. They were trying to put into words what’s impossible to express directly. There were no words to describe the sensation, but simultaneously the Twelve and the three members of the first presidency had the Holy Ghost descend upon them, and they knew that God had manifested his will.” “I, this is Elder McConkie again, had some remarkable spiritual experiences before, particularly in connection with my call as an apostle, but nothing of this magnitude. All 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.” It’s so fun to read the accounts of the apostles who were there. That was Elder McConkie. There’s another great one from Elder Perry, L. Tom Perry. He said, “While he was praying, we had a marvelous experience. We had just a unity of feeling,” he said. “The nearest I can describe it is that it was much like what had been recounted as happening at the dedication of the Kirtland Temple.” He said, “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.” That’s so good. President Hinckley said, “There was a hallowed and sanctified atmosphere in the room, an assurance that the thing for which he prayed was right. The time had come. Every man in that circle,” President Hinckley said, “by the power of the Holy Ghost, knew the same thing.” My favorite one is Ezra Taft Benson. He said, “Following the prayer, we experienced the sweetest spirit of unity and conviction that I have ever experienced.” And then this: “Our bosoms burned with the righteousness of the decision we had made.” I just picture the Lord on the other side of the veil here, with the petitioning prophet for the first time now with the united feeling and sentiment of the First Presidency and Twelve together, petitioning and asking the Lord, and the response was a burning in our bosoms “with the righteousness of the decision we had made.” The Lord’s saying, “Yes! What you’re asking is righteous. That is right. That is right.” That’s just so beautiful to me.I love this little detail, too, from Elder David B. Haight: He was the closest to President Kimball when he had prayed, and he, when they both stand up, spontaneously hugs President Kimball. And Ed Kimball here says, “Elder Haight could feel President Kimball’s heart pounding in his intense emotion.” Just love that image of he hugged him right after they decided that change for blacks and the priesthood, where he just felt his heart pounding. “The president continued around the circle, embracing each apostle in turn. Others spontaneously embraced. It’s beautiful.

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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