June 8, 1978: Revelation on the Priesthood: 30 Years Later

Last Sunday (June 8, 2008), a member of my ward, Whitney, gave an excellent talk in sacrament meeting in commemoration of the 30 year anniversary of the revelation on the priesthood (the formal announcement of). With Whitney’s permission, I am including a written version of his talk here. It is an excellent talk, which speaks honestly of some of the historical difficulties with this topic, and addresses how we need to move forward with better racial relations in the Church.

We generally speak of the restoration of the gospel in the past tense. We refer frequently to the spring of 1820 and to April 6, 1830. Article of Faith 9, however, encourages us to take a more expansive view. That “He will yet reveal many great and important things” signifies an ongoing restoration and one which continues today. June 8, 1978, thirty years ago today, the date when the priesthood was extended to all worthy males, and the blessings of the temple to all worthy members of the church, “without regard for race or color,” is a date that ought to hold a place next to those early dates of the 1800s when we speak of the restoration of the gospel. For without the full blessings of the restoration extended to every worthy member, the restoration of the gospel remains an incomplete one. Just as those important early dates of church history give us the chance to reflect upon the first vision and the founding of the church, so does today allow us the chance to reflect back upon our history and the current state of race relations within the church.

I was born in 1984, six years after the revelation, and therefore have never lived in a time when the priesthood was restricted on the basis of race. As such, while I was growing up, it was not something that I often thought about or discussed on a regular basis. That changed when I began my missionary service in South Chicago, where I was offered frequent opportunities to discuss the topic of the priesthood ban. On a number of occasions I met people whose only knowledge of the Mormons was that they had denied priesthood authority because of race. These were, without exception, difficult conversations.

Part of the difficulty was that it had quickly become apparent to me that there were more good questions than good answers. There are statements made and actions taken by individuals and the church which appear to contradict previous statements and actions. As we commemorate this important day, we have a responsibility to reflect upon our history and acknowledge any incongruities that exist, in order that we may as individuals, congregations, and as a church become a more Zion-like and a more Christ-like people.

History and Elijah Abel

(Many of the following historical facts were taken from John Dehlin’s interview with Darius Gray and Margaret Young.) If we go back the time of Joseph Smith, we are immediately met with our first series of incongruities. During the prophet’s lifetime, the church invited all free people of color to join and participate in their community. Among those who joined the church in that period were a small number of African-American men who were baptized and ordained to the priesthood. The most well known of these is a man by the name of Elijah Abel, who was baptized in 1832, ordained an Elder on March 3, 1836 (according to one source by Joseph Smith Jr. himself), and in December of that same year was ordained to the office of the Seventy. Brother Abel served the church faithfully throughout his life. He served three missions and helped to build temples in Kirtland, Nauvoo, and Salt Lake City. He received the temple ordinance of the washing and anointing while at Kirtland.

Church leaders were aware of Abel’s race; however, it was not seen as a problem with regard to the priesthood until the Utah period. In 1853, his request for the endowment was denied by Brigham Young. Then in 1879, the first conflict with Abel actually holding the priesthood arose when Zebedee Coltrin claimed that in 1834 Joseph Smith Jr. had received a revelation that blacks could not receive the priesthood and that when Joseph learned of Abel’s race, he had been dropped from the office of Seventy. Coltrin’s claims were challenged at that time by then-apostle Joseph F. Smith who produced ordination certificates verifying Abel’s continued status as a priesthood holder. His claims are also rebuffed by the fact that Coltrin himself had ordained Abel to the office of Seventy — two years after he claimed that Joseph had received the revelation restricting the priesthood. Elijah Abel was again denied in his request for the endowment in 1880 by the Quorum of the Twelve. However, in 1883 Brother Abel was still on record as a Seventy and in 1884 served his third and final mission for the church. He died in December of that same year. In 1895, eleven years after Abel’s death, he was again discussed by the Quorum of the Twelve and Joseph F. Smith again refuted claims that he had ever been dropped from the Seventy. Twelve years later in 1908, for reasons that appear nowhere in written history, Joseph F. Smith reversed his position and claimed that Joseph Smith himself had voided Abel’s ordination.

Elijah Abel’s history reveals a number of inconsistencies: from the conflict between Brother Coltrin’s actions in 1836 and his claims in 1879, to Joseph F. Smith’s change of position in 1908, to Abel receiving temple ordinances in Kirtland but not in Salt Lake. One thing that his history clearly establishes is that throughout this early period of the church any established policy regarding priesthood restriction was unclear even among church leadership.

There are a number of other important developments that take place over this same period of time. In 1844, Joseph Smith was running for President of the United States on an anti-slavery platform which sought to end slavery in the U.S. by 1850. In 1845, Orson Hyde was the first in the church to speculate on record that blacks were a “cursed lineage” because of actions in the pre-existence. However, two years after Hyde’s statement, Brigham Young stated, “It’s nothing to do with the blood for one blood has God made all flesh” and then added, referring to Walker Lewis (another African-American who held the priesthood in the early period of the church), that “we have one of the best Elders, an African in Lowell [Massachusetts].” This statement lies in stark contrast to a number of statements made by Brigham Young later in his life. Finaly, in 1852, slavery was given legal recognition in the Territory of Deseret. This appears as somewhat of mixed bag of historical facts, but shows that within the church, just as in society as a whole, there were various different opinions on the subject of race relations.

While the restriction of priesthood appears to have evolved gradually, by 1949 the First Presidency had affirmed that it was a “direct commandment from the Lord” (Neither White nor Black: Mormon Scholars Confront the Race Issue in a Universal Church, eds. Lester E. Bush Jr. and Armand L. Mauss, [Midvale, UT: Signature Books, 1984], pg. 221). However, throughout the 1960s and 1970s, while the civil rights movement was taking place in the U.S., there continued to be differing opinions on whether priesthood restriction was doctrine or policy or practice. Over this long period the general authorities of the church earnestly researched the policy and prayed for guidance on this matter. On June 1, 1978, the revelation that the priesthood and temple blessings would be made available without regard for race or color came as President Spencer W. Kimball prayed with the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve in the Salt Lake Temple. The revelation was announced in a general letter dated June 8, 1978.

Moving Forward

Today we still have with us a large number of quotations logged away in the Journal of Discourses, old conference talks, and books such as Mormon Doctrine (and now carefully archived by a quick Google search), which at best reflect views towards race that are representative of the time in which they were given, but express attitudes that are, nonetheless, racially prejudiced, at times bitterly so, and which still cause pain to many within the church and outside the church. What are we to with such statements? As we continue to move forward as a church it is important to keep two thoughts in mind:

The first is from a talk given by Elder Bruce R. McConkie two months after the revelation on the priesthood (“All Are Alike Unto God”). McConkie said on that occasion:

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. We spoke with a limited understanding and without the light and knowledge that now has come into the world. We get our truth and our light line upon line and precept upon precept. We have now had added a new flood of intelligence and light on this particular subject, and it erases all the darkness and all the views and all the thoughts of the past. They don’t matter any more.

The second thought to keep in mind is from an interview with Elder Jeffrey R. Holland (from the recent PBS documentary The Mormons), regarding the folklore that developed within the church regarding the priesthood restriction:

Some of the folklore that you must be referring to are suggestions that there were decisions made in the pre-mortal councils where someone had not been as decisive in their loyalty to a Gospel plan or the procedures on earth or what was to unfold in mortality, and that therefore that opportunity and mortality was compromised….

One clear-cut position is that [such] folklore must never be perpetuated…. I have to concede to my earlier colleagues…. They, I’m sure, in their own way, were doing the best they knew to give shape to [the policy], to give context for it, to give even history to it. All I can say is however well intended the explanations were, I think almost all of them were inadequate and/or wrong…. We simply do not know why that practice, that policy, that doctrine was in place.

Elder Holland describes our responsibility to not perpetuate these false explanations as the “least…of our current responsibilities on that topic.” President Gordon B. Hinckley went further in explaining our responsibilities with regard to race relations in the Priesthood Session of the April 2006 General Conference (“The Need for Greater Kindness”):

Racial strife still lifts its ugly head. I am advised that even right here among us there is some of this. I cannot understand how it can be. It seemed to me that we all rejoiced in the 1978 revelation given President Kimball….

I remind you that no [one] who makes disparaging remarks concerning those of another race can consider [themselves] a true disciple of Christ. Nor can [they] consider [themselves] to be in harmony with the teachings of the Church of Christ.

The way forward for us as individuals, congregations, and as a church, has been made clear. We must follow the example of Christ. It was he who spoke of a good Samaritan who set aside generations of ethnic conflict to show compassion to a Jewish man left for dead. It was Christ who taught that the second great commandment was to “love thy neighbor as thyself,” and then offered us his example by sitting down to eat with “publicans and sinners” and having compassion on Roman centurions. It was he who finally gave up his life for all and now “denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female” (2 Nephi 26:33). It is my prayer that we may follow the example of Christ by showing love and compassion to all of our brothers and sisters regardless of race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, age, or any other characteristic which might prevent us from doing so.

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3 Responses

  1. A few things to add to Whitney’s talk.

    First, I am happy to see that the date of the first known pronouncement on blacks’ pre-mortal neutrality was after the death of Joseph Smith (by Orson Hyde in 1845). I have my own opinions about how the Church, after Smith’s death, was in a doctrinal wilderness in many respects. This is not meant to disparage Brigham Young, in any way. He was the person who the Lord chose to be his servant — but by way of doctrinal expertise, Young could not even compare to Smith. Moreover, it seems to be that more practical matters took precedence at this time than fine-tuned articulations of doctrine. In many respects, it is clear that the Utah Church relied on second-hand information from Joseph Smith: Joseph said this, he meant this, etc.

    Second, does anyone know when the Church started to use its language of the “long promised day”? I’ve heard some critics of the Church claim that this phrase was not used until after the 1978 revelation, but I know that this is false. On my mission I read an obscure book written by Joseph F. Smith that was published (not simply written, but published) in the 1950s, if I recall correctly. In this book, Smith mentioned the “long promised day when every worthy male could receive the priesthood” (might not be a direct quote, but its pretty close I think).

    Third, there is an informative timeline of events pertaining to black members throughout church history on the Mormon Matters blog. There’s also a short video (about 7 minutes) on YouTube that the Church released. The video says a little about the revelation and what it means to church members, especially black members today.

  2. Dennis makes the excellent comment that after the death of Joseph Smith the church members were relying on second-hand information from the prophet as often interpreted second-hand. In many ways, the precedent of prophetic succession hadn’t yet been proven. (Sure there are Old Testament and New Testament accounts, but there hadn’t been any such precedent in the restored church.) Quite frankly, no prophet has done for our understanding of the gospel as what the Lord provided through Joseph Smith. Sure, Smith had a few nephews and in-laws who wrote some pretty amazing stuff, but Joseph Smith Jr. was in a league touched by few.

    Anyway, pulling this back onto topic. I think even today we often attempt to cast the doctrines of the gospel in a light or interpretation that sit well in our stomach. Some argue that the priesthood being denied to those of African-decent being a “policy” of faulty men. Others, like Whitney pointed out, argue that, “well, those people must have done something wrong.” I’m in the camp of, “Well, God always has his reasons: destroy the Canaanites, shun the Samaritans, give the Gospel to all people, love everyone, etc.”

    I particularly like the McConkie quote that Whitney used. It’s nice to have an “apostolic trump card” that there really are no apostolic trump cards ;)

    I wish there were more people around with Whitney’s talent for writing.

  3. this is a great talk/article. i especially appreciate whitney’s admonition to be aware of our history but to move forward, following the example of Christ. we cannot change what is past, but we can accept what the Lord has revealed up to the present and live so that we are worthy to receive more light and truth in the future.

    sometimes we are required to have faith that the Lord knows what he is doing, which can be extremely difficult. i am reminded of elder dennis simmons’ talk in april ’04 general conference, “but if not…” our God will explain His commandments to His children and give them reasons for events, policies, and other things that don’t seem to make sense…but if not, we will trust in the Lord.

    and like janell said, it’s nice to have that mcconkie trump card of all trump cards!

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