Blacks in Mormonism: Was the Racial Ban Church Policy or Doctrine? Setting the Stage for a Revelation from 1908-1978 (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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An example of an ethnic individual holding the priesthood would be just a few years later, Elder Bruce R. McConkie, who at that time was in the presidency of the Seventy. He publishes a book called, famously, Mormon Doctrine. It’s kind of a dictionary-esque, right? Almost encyclopedia, like A through Z. If you looked up entries on, like, “caste system” or “Negro” or “Descendants of Ham or Cain” or “the Curse of Cain,” you would find this same idea. This is after Brown v. Board of Education. This is when President McKay is softening things. At that same time, Elder McConkie is retrenching this idea that the doctrine is that descendants of Cain cannot hold the priesthood, that this is a divinely ordained caste system. So kind of that same cloth as Elder Mark E. Petersen.

So we have different movements even within the quorum. In fact, in 19—I think it was 1961—President McKay called into the First Presidency Hugh B. Brown. Hugh B. Brown is probably the most open to change of any of the apostles at this time. He’ll work behind the scenes throughout this decade to try to overturn the restrictive ban. He firmly believed it was just a policy, and if it’s a policy, it could be changed. And so, let’s change it.

In fact, this is hard to pin down because we don’t have access to the actual minutes of the meeting where this apparently took place, but there’s reports in Hugh B. Brown’s own family history that he put it to a vote in the Quorum of the Twelve and got a majority to side with him that we should just change this policy. This is the 1960s. But then when Elder Harold B. Lee found out about that, who was absent at that meeting, that he then came back and said, “Whoa. We’ve got to be careful with that. This is a doctrine, and doctrines can only be changed by revelation.”

So you have that dynamic at play, where some of the apostles are feeling like this is a policy, probably an erroneous one, according to Hugh B. Brown. And then others, like Harold B. Lee that feel like, “Ooh, let’s be careful. This is a doctrine. If this came from God, we can’t change it but by revelation.” And then Elder Mark E. Petersen and others felt the same. But at the same time, we have President McKay—like, in Brazil. 

Brazil, as most people are aware, has a large African population, and as the church extends into those areas—in fact, a pattern that we need to point out here is that the frontiers of the church were affecting the headquarters of the church here. A lot of times these questions were coming up because of areas the church was growing into, and the question of how we’re going to deal with those Blacks in Mormonism and the other members from around the world. For instance, just about a year ago, Harvard Heath published David O. McKay’s diaries that were kept by his secretary, Clare Middlemiss, and they don’t have everything in them, but one of the things that they do show is members of the First Presidency and Twelve considering the question of establishing the church in African countries. And one of the proposals was, you know, “We haven’t gotten a revelation to change the policy, but could we just give them the Aaronic Priesthood? They need the Aaronic Priesthood at least if they’re going to have their own congregations, just to bless the sacrament and perform basic ordinances like baptism, or they’re going to be totally dependent on missionaries that come from outside their country to do those things.”

And so they’re having lively discussions about this, but one of the things that is a major question during this time is, like you mentioned, Hugh B. Brown says that a majority of the church leaders agreed with him, but it wasn’t a total lock. It wasn’t unanimous. There were still people that dissented, and the sources seemed to indicate that the primary source of their dissent was, “We can’t change something this major without a revelation.”

And that’s a genuine concern if they’re moving against decades of precedence and decisions by church leaders. They just want to be sure that the Lord is on board with this, and so it takes a lot of time to work towards it, and it’s kind of two steps forward and one step back. For instance, in 1963, Hugh B. Brown speaks in General Conference in favor of civil rights. A couple years later, Ezra Taft Benson, also in General Conference, said that he thought the civil rights movement was dangerous, that it was linked to communism, and believed that it was intended to destabilize the harmony of the United States. So there’s lively discussion in private and in public happening.

They had to have known a little bit about how each other felt, and they’re having these discussions play out before them. I remember in my early twenties, I heard President Hinckley in General Conference say something like this. He said, “I can testify that the church quorums are as united as they’ve ever been in the history of the church.” I remember thinking, “Weren’t they always united? Haven’t they always been just, like, totally harmonious and everything?” And, you know, this is a great example of a time when no, they were not. They were not united. There was very different feelings on this issue, on the spectrum of “Is it a policy or is it eternal doctrine? Is civil rights a good thing? Is this movement wonderful, or is this a front for the communist revolution in America?”

You know, in fact, even back as early as 1954, there are records that suggest that President McKay actually sought a revelation about changing the church’s priesthood-temple policy, or the Mormon priesthood ban, but that he didn’t receive the answer that he sought, and so he concluded that the time was not yet ripe.

So that’s interesting, and we’re only working on secondhand accounts as we try to reconstruct details of that, so it’s kind of hard to get at, but one crucial thing about 1954 is that there was not unanimity in the quorum.

One thing that President McKay did not do, which President Kimball will do and do very effectively, is to seek consensus among the apostles first before they take the question to the Lord. And so changing that policy with such a wide variety of feelings on it among the apostles could have been disastrous. Not because it wouldn’t have been the right thing to do, but if church leaders weren’t on board or not unitedly on board, that could have been a major problem. And again, we’re drawing from public statements here. When it comes to their private feelings, they’re nuanced. They’re complex.

Let me give you another example: This is a letter that Spencer W. Kimball, who’s a member of the Quorum of the Twelve, writes to his son Edward L. Kimball in 1963. So this is right as the civil rights movement is ramping up in the United States, as these discussions are happening among the Twelve. He writes and says, “the conferring of priesthood and declining to give the priesthood is not a matter of my choice nor of President McKay’s. It is the Lord’s program. When the Lord is ready to relax the restriction, it will come whether there is pressure or not. This is my faith. Until then, I shall try to fight on. I’ve always prided myself on being about as unprejudiced as any man. I think my work with the minorities would prove this, but I’m so completely convinced that the prophets know what they’re doing and that the Lord knows what he’s doing, that I’m willing to let it rest there.” And Spencer W. Kimball is maybe the person we need to focus on for the next few minutes. Because he’s going to be the key catalyst in this change.

But understanding how he goes about the change is a really important part of the story, too. And he was open to the idea that this could be an erroneous policy, but he did not side with those who were agitating for change by raising loud voices. He trusted the brethren. He trusted the process.

Is this the same letter that you just quoted from? There’s another one in 1963, or maybe it’s from that same letter to Edward Kimball, where he said, “I have wished the Lord had given us a little more clarity in this matter, but for me it’s enough. I know the Lord could change his policy and release the ban and forgive the possible error,” he calls it a possible error, question mark, “which brought about the deprivation.” And he said, “If the time comes, that He will do, I am sure.” So he’s very open to the possibility it could be erroneous, like some people were saying. But he’s also trusting the Lord’s timing on this LDS priesthood ban and not being one of those loud voices agitating for change.

That was his personality. I’d say Hugh B. Brown was maybe a little more aggressive, from what I’ve read. Spencer W. Kimball was more content to kind of pull back a little and wait and watch and trust and kind of see what happens. And there are some gentle movements in the direction of change. For instance, in 1969, the First Presidency issues a statement designed to move us away from common explanations given in the church for why the priesthood-temple restrictions are given. For instance, their statement from 1969, instead of citing Cain’s murder or premortal reasons behind it, is simply a “We don’t know.” But it does affirm this has been the church’s position from the beginning of this dispensation and that Joseph Smith and all succeeding presidents of the church have taught that “Negroes,” this is the quote from it, “were not yet to receive the priesthood for reasons which we believe are known to God, but which he has not made fully known to man.” So there’s still some error in that, but not a conscious error on their part. I don’t think they have the historical record we have today.

They’re clearly moving away from those two erroneous doctrines that this was primarily founded upon: Cain’s murder and premortal less valiance. Yeah. Now they’re just saying, “This is the case for reasons which are known to God. We don’t know fully why.”

That’s an important move. That’s a really important move.

And that happens in 1969. And then in 1970 Joseph Fielding Smith becomes president of the church. He is, I believe, 93 when he becomes president of the church. So he’s in there for a little while, but only about two and a half years or so. Harold B. Lee becomes president of the church, and even though Harold B. Lee has shown to be a little bit more conservative on this question, he does say a few things. Like, Harold B. Lee says, “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 this time.”

And so as president of the church, Harold B. Lee is basically saying, “Yeah, it’s going to happen, but we don’t know when exactly. We’re waiting for it to happen,” emphasizing his position, which seems to be consistent, that it’s going to require a revelation for this to change.

And sometimes Harold B. Lee gets painted as kind of, like, the hard-liner, right? He’s the hard-liner that is unbudging on this issue of Blacks in Mormonism. But I think if we look at his heart, like, he was determined to defend the true doctrine, right? He was determined to hold the line regardless of external pressure. We will not bend. We will not buckle based on external pressure. If this is God’s will, it’s God’s will. If it’s going to change, he’ll change it, not picketers, not those who are rioting. It’s not going to be because of some sort of external pressure. So I think it’s his deep loyalty. It’s his deep faith that this really did come from God. He wasn’t trying to be obstinate. He wasn’t trying to be a stick in the mud. He was trying to defend the line.

And President Kimball said the same about himself. He said, “I was willing to go to my grave,” like, defending this if this was actually God’s will, then I was willing to toe the line all the way to my grave, regardless of what others would say, so. Now, one thing we should mention here, too, and this is sort of a parallel event in the history of the church, is that Harold B. Lee becomes president of the church when, I believe, he’s 73 years old. He’s young. He’s healthy. He’s hardy. 

He’s a young whippersnapper, and there’s people from this time talking about how they expected Harold B. Lee to be president of the church for 20 years or so, based on his age and the fact that the previous church president was 95 when he passed away, but something unexpected happens. Harold B. Lee passes away suddenly 18 months into his presidency. Until Howard W. Hunter this was the shortest tenure for a church president in the history of the church, and it happens rather suddenly. My understanding is he goes in for a routine checkup and has a massive heart attack and is gone. And suddenly somebody that nobody really expected to be president of the church is president of the church, and that’s Spencer W. Kimball. A guy full of health problems and heart problems.

President Kimball comes from this kind of unique background where he spent a lot of his life working with minority populations. He grows up in Arizona. He feels a special calling to work among the American Indians, to assist and help them, and he’s probably one of the more progressive voices among the Twelve when it comes to this question. At least we know he has a really intense desire to find out what the Lord’s will is concerning this.

In 1973, when he became president of the church—in fact, shortly after he becomes president, he wrote another letter to his son Edward. We’re so in debt to Edward Kimball, by the way. Like, he has given us so much behind the scenes and the inner workings of his father, President Kimball. And what we’re going to include in the show notes, his tremendous article that has been published in BYU Studies on this. So good. So we’ve actually been citing it all throughout today.

Without having said that out loud. So there you go. He’s so good. So here’s a letter that his dad wrote to him right after he became president of the church. Now President Kimball said, “Revelations will probably never come unless they are desired.” And then he said, “I believe most revelations would 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.” That’s such a great letter, and it’s such a great description of what’s going to happen in the next five years.

President Kimball begins reaching, standing on his tiptoes for that revelation that will come in 1978 regarding Blacks and Mormons, and so we’re excited to talk about that. We’re going to talk about that in our next episode.

As far as final thoughts go, President Kimball comes onto the scene, and he’s who we’re going to focus probably the movement towards the 1978 revelation on. But there’s lots of things swirling in the mix here. Ed Kimball, in his excellent article, points out that black members of the church started to receive promises in their patriarchal blessings of priesthood and temple blessings, and missionary service.

A gentleman I was acquainted with when I served a mission in southern Florida, was a black member of the church prior to the revelation. And he talked about the same thing, too. And so there’s lots of forces coming together on the frontiers of the church and at church headquarters to make what happens in 1978 possible. You know, here we are, 44 years removed from that. We sometimes don’t appreciate all the obstacles as well that had to be overcome. And what we’re going to talk about in the next episode is really a masterclass in how a person seeks consensus and revelation from God in a kind of hostile environment. President Kimball is really wonderful in the way he goes about this.

We’re going to see what it means to study an issue out. Sometimes we think that revelation just comes super easy to prophets.

I remember somebody—I was in a small group where somebody suggested that to Elder Richard G. Scott. They said, “Oh, apostles and prophets just ask, and revelation just comes.” He just kind of chuckled at that, and he said, “No.” He said, “There’s a great price to pay for revelation.” And so, yeah, there’s no better, more intimate view into the difficulty and challenge and beauty of that process as is the process that President Kimball goes through to receive this revelation.

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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