THE REVELATION ON THE PRIESTHOOD
June 8, 1978 a joyous letter was sent to all the local Church leaders throughout the world stating that "the long-promised day has come when every faithful, worthy man in the Church may receive the holy priesthood, with power to exercise its divine authority, and enjoy with his loved ones every blessing that flows therefrom, including the blessings of the temple" (Official Declaration--2). Thus ended the 140-year era when the policies of the Church withheld the blessings of the priesthood from the Blacks.
Not many people know, however, that there was a very brief time period at the beginning of the Restoration, when the priesthood was denied to no man. Why did that policy of exclusivity arise, and why did it take so long for it to come full circle and allow Blacks the priesthood again?
THE FIRST BLACK PRIESTHOOD HOLDER--ELIJAH ABEL (1810-1884)
"A black skin may cover as white a heart as any other skin, and the black hand may be as neat and clean as the white one, and all the trouble arises from want of familiarity with the two." --Willard Richards, 1838
Elijah Abel was a free Black man who was baptized by Ezekiel Roberts in 1832, just two years after the Church was organized. He was ordained an elder on March 3, 1836, and a member of the Third Quorum of the Seventy within the year. Elder Abel moved with the Saints from Kirtland to Nauvoo and was a friend to the Smith family, being one of seven elders sent to rescue the Prophet Joseph when he was arrested in Quincy, receiving a patriarchal blessing from Joseph Smith, Sr., and visiting Father Smith on his deathbed. He was a member of the Kirtland Safety Society; he helped build the Nauvoo Temple and the Salt Lake Temple; and he served three full-time missions, first in the 1830's, then in the 1840's, and the last in 1884, when he was 74 years old. He returned home from that last mission early because of illness, and he died on Christmas Day.
THE CULTURAL DIFFICULTIES PREVENTING EQUALITY
In 1832 when Elijah Abel joined the Church, both he and Joseph Smith may have been capable of understanding the concept that all men were created equal, that, as the Book of Mormon says, Christ "denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female" (2 Ne. 26:33). But the rest of the world was not ready. Trouble arose. It quite soon became apparent that the social climate in America did not allow for this kind of equality. Elder Abel, in his position of priesthood authority, chastised some white women in 1843 and they were appalled and affronted. This was a potentially dangerous situation 100 years before the Civil Rights Movement. In consequence, the Brethren decided to limit Brother Abel's ministry to those of his own race, and segregated the Cincinnati congregation where he lived. Elijah obeyed humbly, and continued to serve in that limited capacity. Later he moved to Salt Lake City. Although he was able to do some baptisms for the dead, Elder Abel's requests to receive his endowments in the temple were denied by several consecutive Church Presidents.
THE LAND OF THE FREE (WHITE MEN)
The gospel was restored in the place best prepared for it: The United States of America, the most religiously free country in the world. But it was a country that still practiced slavery. In the very early days of the Church, when Elijah Abel was ordained, this wasn't a big problem. Only a handful of Blacks lived in Kirtland, and Ohio was a free state. But when the Saints moved to the regions in and around Missouri, Black Church membership was a very touchy situation. Slavery was legal, and Joseph Smith's Articles of Faith stated that "we believe in honoring and sustaining the law." How does a slave join the Church, obey the Prophet, and gather with the Saints without becoming a runaway, in danger of the death penalty? Sometimes Joseph Smith solved the dilemma by buying the slave's freedom, but that couldn't always work. Surprisingly, moving the Saints to Utah did not eliminate the problem, just changed it a bit.
JOHN BROWN AND THE MISSISSIPPI SAINTS
In 1846, John Brown, a missionary to the Southern states, following the Prophet's orders, emigrated a group of 14 convert families west to join with the Saints. Yes, that date of 1846 is correct: due to lack of communication, John Brown's Mississippi saints actually went as far as present-day Colorado the year before Brigham Young and the vanguard group left Winter Quarters. When it was discovered that the rest of the Saints had wintered over in Nebraska, the Southern saints waited out the winter at a fort, and in 1847, they met up with Brigham Young's wagon train, and finished the rest of the journey to the Salt Lake Valley. And here was the challenge: These 14 families were slaveholders from Mississippi and brought their slaves with them. From day one, there were slaves in Salt Lake City.
Feb. 15, 1851, Elder Orson Hyde addressed the subject in The Millennial Star: "We feel it to be our duty to define our position in relation to the subject of slavery. There are several men in the Valley of the Salt Lake from the Southern States who have their slaves with them. There is no law in Utah to authorize slavery, neither any to prohibit it. If the slave is disposed to leave his master, no power exists there, either legal or moral, that will prevent him. But if the slave chooses to remain with his master, none are allowed to interfere between the master and the slave."
John Bankhead was a slaveholding Southern plantation owner who tried to teach his slaves to be self-sufficient. He provided each family with their own little home, a garden plot and farming equipment. He got medical care for them when needed. If one of his slaves wanted to marry a slave from another plantation, he either bought the mate or sold his slave so they could be united.
John Bankhead joined the Church, moved west with his slaves, and settled in--believe it or not--Wellsville, Utah. His slaves were provided for and looked after. Following the Civil War, he had to force some of his more loyal slaves to leave his service and accept their liberty. "Now the war is over," he said. "You must be free men." He set them up, and offered to help them in any way they needed. They, in turn, promised that they would defend him to the death.
Many years passed, as the Lord influenced people and nations to change the culture of inequality, in order to make it possible for everyone everywhere to partake freely of the full blessings of the gospel.
CONVERTS IN BLACK AFRICA
In 1965 Anthony Obinna, a Black Nigerian schoolteacher and convert to Christianity, had a remarkable dream in which a man showed him the rooms inside a beautiful building. In 1971 he saw a picture of the Salt Lake Temple in the Reader's Digest magazine and recognized it as the building from his dream. He wrote to the Church for literature, read it prayerfully, and gained a testimony of the truthfulness of the gospel. Then he began writing letters, asking for baptism for himself and a congregation of believers he had taught, including his own family. There were hundreds of non-baptized Latter-day Saints meeting in other various groups in Ghana and Nigeria as well, brought to the knowledge of the gospel by the Spirit in various ways. Petitions from these saints came before President Spencer W. Kimball and weighed heavily upon his mind. As had been previously evident in the South African Mission, the Church's growth and direction would not be possible if local members could not provide priesthood leadership. In South Africa, President McKay had revised the policy from requiring potential priesthood holders to prove themselves free of Black ancestry, to allowing ordination unless there was proof that there was a Black ancestor. In Nigeria and Ghana, there was no doubt the unbaptized saints were completely Black.
President Kimball and the Brethren studied and considered what should be done for many months. He reported, "I prayed with much fervency. I knew that something was before us that was extremely important to many of the children of God. I knew that we could receive the revelations of the Lord only by being worthy and ready for them and ready to accept them and put them into place. Day after day I went alone and with great solemnity and seriousness in the upper rooms of the temple, and there I offered my soul and offered my efforts to go forward with the program. I wanted to do what he wanted."
Finally, the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve met and all expressed their views. They felt an outpouring of the Spirit upon them. They knelt around the altar and prayed, with President Kimball as the voice. Elder Gordon B. Hinckley later recalled, "For me, it felt as if a conduit opened between the heavenly throne and the kneeling, pleading prophet of God who was joined by his Brethren...Every man in that circle, by the power of the Holy Ghost, knew the same thing...Tremendous eternal consequences for millions over the earth are flowing from that manifestation."
Elder Bruce R. McConkie (who had previously published his opinion that the Blacks would not receive the Priesthood until the Millenium) said, "On this occasion, because of the importuning and the faith, and because the hour and the time had arrived, the Lord in his providence poured out the Holy Ghost upon the First Presidency and the Twelve in a miraculous and marvelous manner, beyond anything that any then present had ever experienced." There was no doubt in anyone's mind that the Lord wanted all men to now have every blessing. And opening the temple to the living Blacks also provided for every blessing to their ancestors.
JOY IN AFRICA
Immediately after this revelation was received, three missionary couples were sent to Africa. On November 21, 1978, they baptized Brother Obinna, ordained him to the priesthood, and set him apart as Africa's first Black branch president. He baptized his wife, Fidelia, and set her apart as the first Black Relief Society President. His two brothers were set apart as his counselors. 19 members joined that day, forming the first branch of the Church in which all members were Black.
Within one year these three missionary couples baptized over 1,700 Black Africans.
WHY THE WAIT?
Decades passed between the ordination of Elijah Abel (and a handful of other early Black saints), and the revelation rescinding the policy that had evolved in the Church prohibiting Blacks from the priesthood. Why did the Black members have to wait so long for equal blessings? Let's look carefully at what President Kimball said: "I knew we could receive the revelations of the Lord only by being worthy and ready for them and ready to accept them and put them into place" (emphasis added). The fact that Black people, including slaves, joined the Church and endured to the end during those 130-140 years of being denied blessings is a testament to their faith and their worthiness. Although the Church leadership has never given a reason for the delay, my personal opinion is that it took much longer for the social climate to evolve in the world in which they lived so that the non-Black members of the Church and society as a whole could be "ready to accept it and put it into place."
It took many years for the "want of familiarity with the two" to be alleviated.
But, step by step, it eventually was.
In March 1954, three weeks after his return from a visit to the South African Mission, President David O. McKay stated to Sterling M. McMurrin, "There is not now, and there never has been a doctrine in this Church that the Negroes are under a divine curse...It is a practice, not a doctrine, and the practice will some day be changed." Leonard J. Arrington reported hearing Elder Adam S. Bennion say that President McKay "had pled with the Lord without result and finally concluded the time was not yet ripe."
President Harold B. Lee remarked during a United Press interview, November 16, 1972: "For those who don't believe in modern revelation there is no adequate explanation. Those who do understand revelation stand by and wait until the Lord speaks...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 that time."
The Lord is patient with his children. He waits and works and influences ideas to change and cultures to evolve in order to bring about His purposes. He touches one person at a time, and eventually moves whole nations. Then He steps outside the constraints of time to make blessings available through vicarious temple ordinances to those who missed them in life. He works everything together perfectly to accomplish His divine plan, despite the faults and ignorance of men, and the persistent efforts of Satan. Sometimes it takes many centuries, as it did for the Restoration of the Gospel. And sometimes it only takes 130 years.
Kate B. Carter, Negro Pioneer
Leonard J. Arrington, "Mississippi Mormons," Ensign, June 1977
Garr, et. al, Encyclopedia of L.D.S. History
Gregory A. Prince, et.al., David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism, p. 79-80
Marjorie Draper Conder, "A People Prepared: Latter-day Saints in West Africa," Ensign, August 1993
Our Heritage, p. 126-127
Anthony U. Obinna, "Story of a Nigerian Member," Liahona (Tambuli), June 1981
For the Church's official statement about the history of blacks and the priesthood, read "Race and the Priesthood."
For a brief, carefully documented treatment of this subject, see
For a huge and detailed treatise on President McKay's role in preparing the way for the revelation later received by President Kimball, see Gregory A. Price, et. al, "Blacks, Civil Rights, and the Priesthood," David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism, University of Utah Press.
For more on the Bankhead slaves in Wellsville, Utah, go to Wellsville Historical Society.