30 Years of Authorized Black Priesthood

Jamie Trwthbaptism, blacks, BYU, Culture, death, history, joseph, Mormon, Mormons, President Monson, race, racism, religion, restoration, temple 34 Comments

In 1999 a church news paper surveyed its Latter Day Saint subscribers to glean what single event they thought shaped the last 100 years in Latter Day Saint history. The number one event, rated by its subscribers was the 1978 Priesthood Revelation. Percentage wise the second event didn’t even come close. Today marks the 30th Anniversary of the event Mormon Priesthood ban being officially lifted. Currently there are black Mormons serving as mission presidents, regional, state, district and congregational leaders, counselors, temple presidencies and even patriarchs. There are even second generation black members who were born into Mormonism. But contrary to popular belief there have been black members of the LDS church since 1832. Two years after the church was created. Lets chronicle the events within the time of the priesthood ban.

Elijah Able, a free black man, was baptized into The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

A controversial editorial in the church’s Evening and Morning Star titled “Free People of Color” outlines procedures for the migration of free blacks to Missouri, a slave state. It sparks anti-Mormon violence and leads to the church’s eventual eventual expulsion from the state. Also that year, LDS founder Joseph Smith receives a revelation, published in the church’s Doctrine & Covenants, saying, “It is not right that any man should be in bondage one to another.”

Rules governing the LDS Temple in Kirtland, Ohio, say it is open to “old or young, rich or poor, male or female, bond or free, black or white, believer or unbeliever . . .”

Elijah Able is ordained to the Melchizedek Priesthood to the office of an Elder of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. From the evidence it is to be believed he was ordained by Joseph Smith. In December of the same year he is ordained a Seventy and becomes a “duly licensed minister of the Gospel” for missionary work in Ohio. He also serves missions in New York and Canada. The ordination was performed by Zebedee Coltrin.

Elijah Abel is made a member of the Nauvoo Seventies Quorum. At the request of Joseph Smith, he works as a mortician in Nauvoo.

Joseph Smith runs for U.S. president on an anti-slavery platform, proposing the sale of public lands to pay for the release of every slave and to abolish slavery by 1850.

Green Flake, the slave of James Madison Flake, a convert to the LDS Church, is baptized at the age of 15. Green remains a slave but is a faithful member of the church throughout his life. Samuel Chambers, a 13-year-old, is baptized in secret because he is a slave. Walker Lewis, a black man in Lowell, Mass., is ordained an to the office of an Elder in the Melchizedek Priesthood.

Walker Lewis, a black man, is ordained to the office of Elder.

William McCary, a black man, is ordained to the office of Elder.

Elijah Abel arrives in Utah. A carpenter by trade, he works on building the Salt Lake Temple. He and his wife Mary Ann manage the Farnham Hotel. Mary Ann Abel was Negro according to the 1850 Hamilton County, Ohio, census and the 1860 Utah census.

Elijah Abel arrives in Utah, where he works on building the Salt Lake Temple. He and his wife Mary Ann manage the Farnham Hotel. The couple asks to be “sealed” in marriage in the temple, which Brigham Young refuses. Abel had already been through the Kirtland Temple for washings and anointings and he was already baptized for the dead in Nauvoo.

Elijah asked to receive his endowment and was denied by Brigham Young.

Brigham Young frees Green Flake.

All black Melanesians (Fijians) are given the priesthood (blacks in the Philippines even earlier)

Utah Census lists 59 blacks, 29 of them are listed as slaves.

Elijah Able is still on Church records as a Seventy.

Elijah Able in his 70s is sent on yet another mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. He returns home early from his mission and dies in early December of 1884.

Elijah Abel’s son, Enoch Abel, is ordained an elder.

Jane Manning James, a faithful black Mormon since the days of Joseph Smith Jr., is given a special temple sealing as a “servant” to Joseph Smith Jr. She continues to pursue her endowment.

Elijah Abel’s grandson is ordained a priest; a year later, he advances to elder.

First Presidency statement on blacks and priesthood states the ban “is not a matter of the declaration of a policy but of direct commandment from the Lord, on which is founded the doctrine of the church from the days of its organization.”

A missionary tract, the Joseph Smith Story, found its way into the hands of a black religious leader in Ghana, Dr. A.F. Mensah. He converts several others, sets up a church congregation and corresponds with the Church missionary department.

After reading the Book of Mormon, J.W.B. Johnson forms the first “Latter-day Saint” congregations in Ghana, Africa.

Fourteen University of Wyoming football players wanted to wear armbands for their games with Brigham Young University as a protest against the ban on blacks. Other athletes also protested.

LDS President David O. McKay tells the Salt Lake Tribune that “There is no doctrine in this church and there never was a doctrine in this church to the effect that the Negroes are under any kind of a divine curse.”


Genesis Group, a support group for black Mormons, is organized in Salt Lake City under the direction of then LDS President Joseph Fielding Smith with apostles Gordon B. Hinckley (pictured, with Genesis co-founder Darius Gray), Thomas S. Monson and Boyd K. Packer as advisers.

1978 June 8th
President Spencer W. Kimball announces a divine revelation opening the priesthood to all worthy males regardless of race or lineage. is announced. The events leading up to it and the revelation itself are judged to be a true miracle.

Now the time before the ban lets look at what life has been like after the ban was lifted.

LDS Apostle Bruce R. McConkie, who wrote in Mormon Doctrine that blacks would never get the priesthood, states that “we should forget everything that has been said in the past on this topic.”

Helvecio Martins set apart as first black General Authority as a member of the Quorum of the Seventy — the first black Seventy since Elijah Abel.

Robert Foster elected BYU student body president.

LDS President Gordon B. Hinckley condemns racism during the all-male priesthood session of the church’s Annual General Conference.

Where were you when you heard the Priesthood Ban was lifted.

I don’t know where I was on June 8th 1978 when the ban was lifted. But I can tell you where I was June 8th 2008. I was in Elders Quorum reading Official Declaration—2 to the Elders of Israel.

Jamie Trwth
Latte Day Saints

Comments 34

  1. Wonderful summary, Jamie. I was in central Utah, celebrating with my family and friends. At that point, I didn’t know a single black person well enough to be a friend, but I was ecstatic. It truly was an amazing day.

  2. Very good time line. Let me know what year Adam and Eve from the temple videos will no longer be depicted as whites from Missouri. First humans came from Africa, so they probably looked much like Africans today.

  3. I was two years old when the 1978 revelation happened, but I remember hearing about it growing up and what a great thing it was. Which made me wonder why church policy was ever different. That took a lot of individual research to try to figure out and opened the door to wondering about a lot of other policies that seemed inhumane. I’m still here, though.

  4. Thanks for the summary–I knew about Able but did not know about his progeny… interesting!

    Zelph–“they probably looked much like Africans today” – That makes two of us that think that way! Sometimes I suggest this idea to friends and I always get a “hmmm…” kind of response, lol.

  5. AdamF- This response is the racism that sadly still exists on a very subconscious level. Of course the ultimate irony is if the first humans were black, that means if there was ever a skin colored curse, it would be the white skin. That seems to make more sense anyways, because think about how many more skin problems white people have. LOL

    While on the topic, Jesus wasn’t white either he was Middle Eastern.

    John Nilsson- I don’t understand why women don’t have the priesthood. Women never held priesthood leadership positions, but in the early days of the church, women held the priesthood and performed blessings. This was not just some obscure thing either. It is clear from many diaries that women performed priesthood blessings all the time under Joseph Smith.

  6. Step 2: Women. Restore their priesthood (priestesshood? is that a word?). I’m being serious. I personally think Joseph Smith had this in mind. It seems pretty plain to me from the temple that women have authority and divine power.

  7. Zelph,

    That’s exactly what I mean, or one example at least. Weigh in on the issue on my post today: Evidences and Reconciliations.

  8. I was 5 years old and remember my father, who served his mission in South Africa and (then) Rhodesia tossing me into the air and cheering. I can honestly say that I haven’t, before or since, seen him any happier. I also remember his excitement while reading the church news and occassionaly recognizing black leaders who had been called to stake and other leadership positions.

    I lived in an extremely homogeneous local culture, where it’s easy to have false notions about racial difference propagate. I think my dad’s experiences and demeanor help immunize me, and I’ve always been grateful for that.

    This is one of those issues that I can’t pretend to understand all the way through. I’m glad the ban was lifted, but disheartened that it ever existed. I hope I’ll understand why someday.

  9. Darker skin is from higher amounts of Melatonin, which evolves (you know, that pesky thing called evolution ?) from living closer to the equator where there is more sun on average. It has nothing to do with “The Curse Of Cain” or being from “The Loins Of Ham” or any other such nonsense. The fact that the church does not refute these absurd claims says a lot, no ?

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  11. Donald,
    Huh? The Church’s tax-exempt status is not derived from (or, frankly, related to) the priesthood. It derives from IRC 501(c) (although there is a certain scholarship that thinks it would be unconstitutional to tax churches; I haven’t really read it, so I’m not going to chime in on that). If you’ve got a decent argument for what the church’s tax-exempt status has to do with blacks and the priesthood, I’d love to hear it (but if you’re going to argue Bob Jones University, you’d better make it pretty darn convincing; I haven’t read it in a number of years, but I’m not convinced that that case has any bearing on a church’s tax-exempt status).

    Like jjackson, I’m glad the ban was lifted; I don’t believe that it was doctrinal, although I do believe that, as firmly entrenched as it had become, it was necessary that it be ended revelatorially. And I’m really glad that I was 2 when it was ended so that I never had to figure out how to reconcile my faith to a church that limited the priesthood based on race.

  12. Jamie – great job! Just wow! I’ve been wanting to have access to this kind of list, without actually doing any of the work, so thanks.

    Valoel – you are probably right. But I don’t really care whether it’s ever given to women or not (outside of the temple, that is). It’s not holding me back from anything I need. Priesthood is for the people you serve, not for the holder, and I’m serving plenty. It would be nice for single, divorced or widowed mothers to have for being able to administer blessings, but I have always assumed that a prayer in faith would be equally acceptable to the Lord for healing, and based on personal experience, it has been.

    I’m glad the ban was lifted – who wouldn’t be? We hold the church to a standard of perfection on this and other issues that just isn’t realistic, though. Does anyone in this day and age think slavery is NOT wrong? Yet, the Bible doesn’t condemn it even once. There are regulations for how to treat slaves. That’s obviously wrong-headed.

    The Ham / Curse of Cain stuff is not uniquely Mormon, BTW. Mormons pilfered that stinky little gem right out of Baptist rhetoric. Since it was never doctrinal nor created by the church, should the church apologize for it? Maybe. But if so, it’s just because we live in an apology culture. Everyone apologizes for everything any more. It’s those darn Disney and Nordstrom people.

    So, let me just get this out of the way and say that I’m sorry for the priesthood ban. It was wrong. I won’t do it again. Feels good to get that off my chest.

  13. Regarding #12, they have refuted it, my bad… doing some research I can find that “white and delightsome” was in fact changed to “pure and delightsome” in the BoM. I guess that counts. >:)

  14. I was a kid watching TV in Arizona when a new announcement came on the television. They news crew showed footage of the Mesa, AZ temple since it was really the only local Mormon landmark and they reported the announcement. I walked in to where my mom was and told her what I had just heard. She called one of her friends that was in a different ward and told me when she got off the phone that when she told her friend this, her friend laughed at her and told her that couldn’t possibly be true, that the news people must have got it wrong and that perhaps they meant that someday the priesthood might actually be extended in the manner described. I don’t recall that her friend ever called back to acknowledge that her reaction was off the mark for the historic moment.

  15. #16 – It has been refuted, clearly and directly.

    Bruce R. McConkie was one of the most vocal supporters of the ban. One month after the revelation lifting the ban, he said:

    “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.

    (”All Are Alike unto God” – BYU devotional – August 18, 1978)

    It doesn’t get any clearer than that.

  16. The Ham / Curse of Cain stuff is not uniquely Mormon, BTW. Mormons pilfered that stinky little gem right out of Baptist rhetoric.

    Indeed. We should all apologize for being mislead that the Evangelicals had truth in that regard and in learning that from them.

    Ok, that didn’t satisfy anyone.

    One neat thing is that everywhere I’ve lived people celebrate this day with joy and thanksgiving. That says alot about the Church.

  17. For a scholarly review of such Christian behavior, read When Slavery Was Called Freedom: Evangelicalism, Proslavery, and the Causes of the Civil War by John Patrick Daly (Lexington, Kentucky: University Press of Kentucky, 2002) or Noah’s Curse: The Biblical Justification of American Slavery by Stephen R. Haynes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002). You quickly find out that the “Curse of Cain” was not a vestige of Mormon doctrine, as critics pretend, but an inheritance of antebellum Protestantism.


  18. Stephen M. – “Indeed. We should all apologize for being mislead that the Evangelicals had truth in that regard and in learning that from them.” I’d just settle for our not being mislead by them politically at this juncture into creating an evangelical theocracy.

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  20. My family had been on vacation in Lake Powell, and when we returned a neighbor told us he had thrown our paper on the porch because he knew we would want to read “The Big News.” After we looked at him quizzically, he told us about the revelation. My dad cried, and told us that his grandfather had often prayed that they ban would be lifted so that his African-American friend could receive the priesthood and go to the temple. I have always felt grateful that I was able to see this revelation came about.

  21. I think the clear message of this time line is that the church policy and relation with those of African descent is far more complicated than the:

    “They were racists and now aren’t, but refuse to apologize” storyline that gets repeated everywhere.

  22. Very nice timeline.

    A member of my ward gave an excellent talk in sacrament meeting last Sunday on some of the historical issues leading up the 1978 revelation in sacrament meeting. The talk is printed here.

  23. @MArtin Willey, this is a touching memory.

    As far as France is concerned I can’t tell you how it went with the brothers but I can tell you that it went absolutely unnoticed in sacrament meeting. As a matter of fact I had to come here and read about it to be remembered it.
    I wish we had some african readers here to tell us how they feel about it because frankly I really can’t tell it has a been an issue in France. My mom beccame a member in 78 or 79 and I have never heard anything said about it in the church here, not even from black members if the church and let me tell you that growing up in a big city I met plenty of black members.

  24. #15 Hawkgrrrl–The Ham / Curse of Cain stuff is not uniquely Mormon, BTW. Mormons pilfered that stinky little gem right out of Baptist rhetoric. Since it was never doctrinal nor created by the church, should the church apologize for it?

    “The next question: “Was Cain cursed with a black skin?” Technically the black skin was not the curse, but the mark of the curse. The scriptures do not say that Cain was made black, but we read that his descendants were. (Moses 7:22.) We may well suppose that Cain was also black and that this was the mark the Lord placed upon him. (Genesis 4:15.)” (Answers to Gospel Questions, vol. 2 Joseph Fielding Smith)

    “President Brigham Young, answering a question put to him by Elder Lorenzo D. Young in a meeting held December 25, 1869, in Salt Lake City, said that Joseph Smith had declared that the negroes were not neutral in heaven, for all the spirits took sides, but “the posterity of Cain are black because he (Cain) committed murder. He killed Abel and God set a mark upon his posterity. But the spirits are pure (i. e. innocent. See D. C. 93:38.) that enter their tabernacles and there will be a chance for the redemption of all the children of Adam, except the sons of perdition.”-J. H., Dec. 25, 1869.” (Way to Perfection chapter 16 Joseph Fielding Smith)

    “It was well understood by the early elders of the Church that the mark which was placed on Cain and which his posterity inherited was the black skin. The Book of Moses informs us that Cain and his descendants were black. (Way to Perfection chapter 16 Joseph Fielding Smith)
    This doctrine did not originate with President Brigham Young but was taught by the Prophet Joseph Smith. At a meeting of the general authorities of the Church, held August 22, 1895, the question of the status of the negro in relation to the Priesthood was asked and the minutes of that meeting say:

    “President George Q. Cannon remarked that the Prophet taught this doctrine: That the seed of Cain could not receive the Priesthood nor act in any of the offices of the Priesthood until the seed of Abel should come forward and take precedence over Cain’s offspring.”

    Joseph Smith has left very little on record in his own words outside of the Pearl of Great Price. During the course of a discussion in Nauvoo in 1842, on the question as to whether the negroes or the Indians have received the greater ill-treatment from the whites, the Prophet Joseph said: “The Indians have greater cause to complain of the treatment of the whites, than the negroes, or sons of Cain.” (D. H. C. 4:501.) But we all know it is due to his teachings that the negro may be baptized and enter the Church; and some of these unfortunate people have been baptized and have proved their faithfulness and worthiness before the Lord, in this their second estate, setting examples in righteousness which many of the sons of Shem and Japheth could emulate with everlasting profit. Surely the Lord will remember their faithfulness and reward them accordingly.” (same as above)

    If this doctrine came from the Baptist church, would someone please explain to me why Joseph Smith was teaching this? The PGP is scripture to LDS, correct? Then that means is it (was) a doctrine within the church. While it may not be an original thought to the LDS church, it should apologize for the doctrine anyway. Any church that teaches such things should be ashamed of itself. God isn’t racist…neither should we be. (no, I’m NOT saying that anyone on this message board is a racist).

  25. Friends,

    Peace and Blessings!

    The interesting fact is that while in the LDS church blacks had to go through the ban, in the RLDS church the ban never existed. And as early as May 1965, much on the contrary, Presidente/Prophet Joseph Smith III brough forth a revelation, which is our D&C 116, where it was stated that:
    [Sec 116:1a] Hearken! Ye elders of my church, I am he who hath called you friends. Concerning the matter you have asked of me:
    [Sec 116:1b] Lo! It is my will that my gospel shall be preached to all nations in every land, and that men of every tongue shall minister before me:
    [Sec 116:1c] Therefore it is expedient in me that you ordain priests unto me, of every race who receive the teachings of my law, and become heirs according to the promise.

    Today even among the 12 there is one who is black and have been born in Africa.

    Also, since 1954, guided by revelation which is our D&C 156, the RLDS church has been ordaining women and they too now are present even among the 12 and in the First Presidency where one of the three members is a woman. Here is the text of that revelation where God basically asked “what part of ‘All are Called…’ don’t you understand?”:
    [Sec 156:9a] “I have heard the prayers of many, including my servant the prophet, as they have sought to know my will in regard to the question of who shall be called to share the burdens and responsibilities of priesthood in my church.”
    [Sec 156:9b] “I say to you now, as I have said in the past, that all are called according to the gifts which have been given them. This applies to priesthood as well as to any other aspects of the work.”
    [Sec 156:9c] “Therefore, do not wonder that some women of the church are being called to priesthood responsibilities. This is in harmony with my will and where these calls are made known to my servants, they may be processed according to administrative procedures and provisions of the law.”
    [Sec 156:9d] “Nevertheless, in the ordaining of women to priesthood, let this be done with all deliberateness. Before the actual laying on of hands takes place, let specific guidelines and instructions be provided by the spiritual authorities, that all may be done in order.”

    70Tony Saraiva, CofChrist
    Brazil Mission Center

  26. I stumbled over this article yesterday which made me reconsider my thoughts about the priesthood/blacks issue altogether. Its an interview given by Elder Jefferey R Holland to pbs at: http://www.pbs.org/mormons/interviews/holland.html

    Q: I’ve talked to many blacks and many whites as well about the lingering folklore [about why blacks couldn’t have the priesthood]. These are faithful Mormons who are delighted about this revelation, and yet who feel something more should be said about the folklore and even possibly about the mysterious reasons for the ban itself, which was not a revelation; it was a practice. So if you could, briefly address the concerns Mormons have about this folklore and what should be done.

    A: One clear-cut position is that the 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. …

    It probably would have been advantageous to say nothing, to say we just don’t know, and, [as] with many religious matters, whatever was being done was done on the basis of faith at that time. But some explanations were given and had been given for a lot of years. … At the very least, there should be no effort to perpetuate those efforts to explain why that doctrine existed. I think, to the extent that I know anything about it, as one of the newer and younger ones to come along, … we simply do not know why that practice, that policy, that doctrine was in place.

    Q: What is the folklore, quite specifically?

    A: Well, 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. I really don’t know a lot of the details of those, because fortunately I’ve been able to live in the period where we’re not expressing or teaching them, but I think that’s the one I grew up hearing the most, was that it was something to do with the pre-mortal councils. … But I think that’s the part that must never be taught until anybody knows a lot more than I know. … We just don’t know, in the historical context of the time, why it was practiced. … That’s my principal [concern], is that we don’t perpetuate explanations about things we don’t know. …

    We don’t pretend that something wasn’t taught or practice wasn’t pursued for whatever reason. But I think we can be unequivocal and we can be declarative in our current literature, in books that we reproduce, in teachings that go forward, whatever, that from this time forward, from 1978 forward, we can make sure that nothing of that is declared. That may be where we still need to make sure that we’re absolutely dutiful, that we put [a] careful eye of scrutiny on anything from earlier writings and teachings, just [to] make sure that that’s not perpetuated in the present. That’s the least, I think, of our current responsibilities on that topic. …

    Its the closest a high ranking GA has come, to my knowledge, to condemning and refuting the belief of pre-existence shortfalls causing one to be born black.

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