Our ward ran out of lessons from the Sunday School manual with one week left in the year. Since it was my turn in the teaching rotation and because we had focused on other matters in the recent lesson on continuing revelation, I proposed teaching a lesson on Official Declaration–2 and the priesthood revelation of 1978. I don’t think the subject matter turned off the Sunday School president; other considerations caused him to give my week to my co-teacher. In any case, I didn’t know I would be teaching after all until receiving an email from my bishop last Tuesday evening. I spent about 30 hours since then working on the lesson; below is what I came up with, adapting from the drafts and experiences of friends who have taught similar lessons recently.
I wanted class members to feel a personal connection to some of the early black pioneers, with the goal of remembering how important the 1978 revelation was to the lives of real people. I also wanted to help anyone who might be uncomfortable about jettisoning the teachings of beloved church leaders of the past, by stressing that since we believe in continuing revelation, it should not be surprising that we as a church understood less yesterday than we do today. PowerPoint slides of pioneers and church leaders, with pertinent short quotations, helped class members focus.
It went well, judging by the absolute quiet, the close attention, and the look on class members’ faces [with one exception; see comment 1], and a few remarks afterward.
I am generally a good teacher and I enjoy teaching. This lesson scared me, though – not that it was an overwhelmingly difficult subject, but that through pride in my talents I might have proposed this lesson for the wrong reasons. I don’t think I’ve ever prayed so much about a lesson, that I could teach what the Lord wanted, that pride would not enter into it, and that class members would feel a love for brothers and sisters of the past, which could translate into love and respect for brothers and sisters today.
The Long-Promised Day
Lesson for 27 December 2009: The Long-Promised Day
Articles of Faith–9
To help class members appreciate the importance of the priesthood revelation of June 1978 through establishing feelings of brotherhood with early black members of the Church, by discussing efforts of church leaders to understand the precedents of the priesthood restriction, and by reinforcing prophetic calls for an end to lingering folk beliefs and racial strife.
Because this is the last week of our course on church history and the Doctrine and Covenants, we are going to look at the last document in the Doctrine and Covenants: Official Declaration–2, the statement signed by Spencer W. Kimball and his counselors in 1978 announcing the revelation that extended the priesthood to all male members of the church, without regard to race or color or any other consideration beyond worthiness.
It has been 31 years since that revelation was received, so a large part of our ward has grown up in a time when they could take it for granted that “God is no respecter of persons” (Acts 10:34), and may not completely appreciate what a profound and glorious moment that was. The rest of us grew up hearing teachings that have since been repudiated by Church leaders – but even though we no longer hear them, they may be hard to uproot from our memories and our beliefs.
So today I’m going to try to recreate for us all the feelings that we shared in June 1978, by going back to the time of Joseph Smith and telling brief stories of some extraordinarily faithful Latter-day Saints. Then we’ll come forward in time to 1978, and to a few statements of Church leaders made since that day.
Ordinarily I am less a teacher than I am the leader of our class discussion. Today, however, because I have so very much to get through, I am going to present more of a lecture than a discussion. I will try to save time at the end of the lesson for questions and for personal comments, but please, cooperate with me and understand that I will not be asking for class participation until the end.
“We believe all that God has revealed, all that he does now reveal, and we believe that he will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God.” – Ninth Article of Faith
One of our most basic beliefs is that God continues to speak through his prophets, teaching us new truth. With that core doctrine in mind, it should be easy to understand that the way things are done today, the doctrines that are taught today, are not necessarily the way things have always been. If God continues to reveal “great and important things” to us today, then it stands to reason that yesterday we did not know those “great and important things.”
Elijah Abel (1808-1884; Maryland), was born a slave in Maryland, but is believed to have escaped to Canada with the help of the Underground Railroad. He and his wife were members of the Church of Christ before hearing of the Restored Gospel. They were baptized, and Elijah was ordained an elder on March 3, 1836, by Joseph Smith, in Kirtland. He was ordained a Seventy in 1841. He served three missions for the Church, two in New York and Canada during the Nauvoo period, and again in New York briefly at the end of his life; he became ill at the beginning of his third mission, and returned home to Salt Lake City where he died.
In 1891, a woman named Eunice Kinney recorded her memories of hearing the Gospel from Elijah Abel during his mission to New York and Canada. Even though it had been more than 50 years, and although Mrs. Kinney had long since left the Church, she could still remember Elijah’s powerful spirit:
In the spring of 1838 I heard the first Gospel sermon by a Latter-day Saint. His name was Elijah Abel; he was ordained by Joseph, the martyred prophet. I was then living in the town of Madrid, Lawrence County, New York. We had never heard of the Latter-day Saints until Elder Abel came into the place. I, with my husband, went and heard him preach. Abel was a man without education; it was difficult for him to read his text but when he commenced to preach, the Spirit rested upon him and he preached a most powerful sermon. It was such a Gospel sermon as I had never heard before, and I felt in my heart that he was one of God’s chosen ministers. …
“While he was preaching, a great and marvelous change came over me. All the doubts and fears and unbelief and the powerful darkness that had so distressed me fled before the light of God’s truth like the dew before the Sun. The Holy Spirit came upon me and I was in a glorious vision. It was then and there made known to me by the power of God that Joseph Smith was a true Prophet of God, and the Book of Mormon was a sacred record of divine origin, and Elijah Abel was a servant of the most high God. I’ve never had a doubt of these things from that day to this, and when I think of that glorious event it fills my heart with joy and gratitude to my Heavenly Father for such an expression of his goodness.”
Elijah was well known to Joseph Smith and to the other leaders of the Church, all of whom recognized that he was an African-American. He served as Nauvoo’s undertaker. He helped to build both the Kirtland and Nauvoo Temples. He was absent from Nauvoo as a missionary, however, when that temple was completed and so he and Mary Ann did not receive their endowments at that time. Elijah and Mary Ann Abel and their children emigrated to Utah in 1853.
We do not know if Elijah sought his endowment during the lifetime of Brigham Young; had he done so, he no doubt would have been turned down the same as other African-Americans were denied that privilege. We do know that in 1879, he asked John Taylor for a recommend to the temple. President Taylor was uncertain what to do – he knew that Joseph Smith had ordained Elijah to the priesthood, he knew that Brigham Young had not. He called a conference of Church leaders, seeking testimony from men who might have heard Joseph discuss the matter. Abraham O. Smoot, who was from Tennessee and had taught in the South, testified that Joseph Smith had instructed him not to ordain slaves – but he knew nothing about doctrine concerning free blacks. Zebedee Coltrin claimed that Joseph had taught that “the Negro had no right nor cannot hold the priesthood,” and that Elijah Abel, a light-skinned man, had been dropped from his priesthood quorum as soon as anyone realized that he was black. Joseph F. Smith challenged Coltrin’s memory; he produced Elijah Abel’s ordination certificates, including the one for Elijah’s 1841 ordination as a Seventy, signed by Coltrin himself. Coltrin’s memory was shown to be inaccurate on a number of other details, yet, for reasons he did not record, President Taylor decided on a sort of compromise: Elijah Abel retained his priesthood, but was denied the privilege of going to the temple.
Five years later, on Christmas Day, 1884, Elijah Abel died. We do not know who wrote his obituary for the Deseret News, but it was clearly someone who valued both Elijah’s priesthood and his missionary service.
Died, Elijah Abel: In the Thirteenth Ward, December 25th, 1884, of old age and debility, consequent upon exposure while laboring in the ministry in Ohio. Deceased was born in Washington County, Maryland, July 23rd, 1810. He joined the Church and was ordained an Elder as appears by certificate dated March 3rd, 1836. He was subsequently ordained a Seventy, as appears by certificate dated April 4, 1841. He labored successfully in Canada and also performed a mission in the United States, from which he returned about two weeks ago. He died in full faith of the Gospel.
Incidentally, despite the denial of temple attendance, and despite the hardening of the restriction against blacks holding the priesthood, Elijah Abel’s son was ordained in 1900; his grandson was ordained in 1935.
One more important story, then we’ll move ahead.
If you’ve seen the Joseph Smith movie, you’ll remember the scene where Joseph Smith welcomes a black family to Nauvoo. That is the Manning family of Connecticut. Jane Manning and her parents and siblings heard the gospel and were baptized in 1841. As a woman past 80, she recalled her travels to Nauvoo:
We started from Wilton, Connecticut, and traveled by canal to Buffalo, New York. We were to go to Columbus, Ohio before our fares were to be collected, but they insisted on having the money at Buffalo and would not take us farther. So we left the boat and started on foot to travel a distance of over eight hundred miles. We walked until our shoes were worn out, and our feet became sore and cracked open and bled until you could see the whole print of our feet with blood on the ground. We stopped and united in prayer to the Lord; we asked God the Eternal Father to heal our feet. Our prayers were answered and our feet were healed forthwith.
That faith was manifested in Jane’s actions throughout her long life. She lived in the family of Joseph and Emma Smith. She married Isaac James just before the exodus, and came to Utah as a pioneer of 1847. You’ll see in this picture of the 1897 Jubilee, where survivors of the 1847 companies gathered on Temple Square, that if we enlarge this section [indicating a spot near the center], we can see Jane standing with all the others.
Beginning in 1869, Jane began petitioning the First Presidency for permission to go to the temple. Time after time, she was denied. Late in 1884, she approached John Taylor with, I think, one of the most poignant pleas I have ever heard:
Inasmuch as this is the fulness of times and through Abraham’s seed all mankind may be blessed is there no blessing for me?
All through the 1890s she asks regularly, one church president after another, for the privileges of endowment and sealing. She is granted permission to do baptisms, and said in her old age:
I have had the privilege of going into the temple and being baptized for some of my dead. I am now over eighty years old and am nearly blind, which is a great trial to me. It is the greatest trial I have ever been called upon to bear, but I hope my eyesight will be spared to me–poor as it is–that I may be able to go to meeting, and to the temple to do more work for my dead.
But she died in 1908, still without her blessings. Joseph F. Smith spoke at her funeral, and quoted part of her dictated testimony:
My faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ of Latter day Saints is as strong today–nay it is if possible stronger–than it was the day I was first baptized. I pay my tithes and offerings, keep the Word of Wisdom. I go to bed early and arise early. I try in my feeble way to set a good example to all.
Jane received her blessings, by proxy, in 1979.
Elijah Abel and Jane Manning James are the best known of the black Latter-day Saint pioneers, but they are not the only ones:
In 1847, when Brigham Young raised up from his sick bed in the wagon, looked over the Salt Lake Valley, and said, “This is the right place; drive on,” the man who drove his wagon was 19-year-old Green Flake, still a slave, although he would be freed a few years later, a man who remained a faithful Latter-day Saint his entire life, as did generations of his descendants – pictured here are his granddaughter Lucinda and two of her own daughters.
The large Bankhead family, including blacksmith Daniel Bankhead Freeman, whose parents gave him a new surname to commemorate his being born a free man here in the Salt Lake Valley.
Mary Ann Perkins, who settled in Bountiful.
Amanda and Samuel Chambers. Samuel had been baptized when he was 13 years old. As a slave, he had no further contact with the Church for 30 years, but he remained true to the testimony he had received as a child. After the Civil War, he made his way to Utah, where he became a successful farmer in the Fort Union part of this Valley. When Cottonwood decided to build a new chapel, Samuel Chambers offered $1,000 to the building fund.
There were many, many other such pioneers.
And then there were Len and Mary Hope. Len was baptized in Alabama, in secret, after returning from service during World War I. Despite the secrecy of his baptism, a few nights later his sharecropper’s cabin was surrounded by members of the Ku Klux Klan, on horseback. They told him he must immediately withdraw his name from “that white church,” or they would return and hang him. Len went to the missionaries, who assured him that his name was recorded both on the official rolls in Salt Lake City and in the books in heaven, no matter whether it appeared on the local records. Len married, converted his wife, and they moved to Cincinnati, eager to be able to worship with the Saints in the branch there. But on their first Sunday in the branch, they were told that they were not welcome among the white worshipers. So Len and Mary did not try to attend church again. But once each month, the branch president and the missionaries visited the Hope home. They blessed the sacrament, collected the tithes that the Hopes insisted on paying, and held a testimony meeting. This photograph shows the Hopes with one of their missionaries – Marion D. Hanks. They came to Utah at the end of World War II and became members of the Millcreek Ward, where Mary was active in Relief Society and Len met with the High Priests Group, although he could not hold the priesthood before his death in 1954. One of his fellow high priests remembered his statement that “I’d be willing to be stripped of my skin if only I could hold that priesthood.”
Every president of the Church upheld the precedent of withholding the priesthood from African-American men, but there is some evidence that some or even many church leaders were uneasy with the reasons for the restriction. Several leaders studied the history of the restriction. For David O. McKay, who commissioned perhaps the widest and deepest study, his uneasiness lay in the fact that there was no recorded revelation, no known statement by Joseph Smith, no line in a diary or a letter or a minute book, that explained the origin of the restriction. There were many statements, many purported doctrines, taught by church leaders that justified the restriction, but no one knew how or when it began.
The study conducted at the request of President McKay disclosed that Elijah Abel was not the only black man who was ordained to the priesthood. Another such man was Walker Lewis, a Nauvoo-era convert who had lived and preached in Lowell, Massachusetts. There is no question that he was known by Church leaders, both as a black man and as a worthy priesthood holder – Brigham Young himself had written approvingly of Walker Lewis as a black priesthood holder in an 1847 letter. Because Walker spent only one season in Utah, though, before returning East, we don’t have many records of him or know what his life might have been had he lived longer here.
Research disclosed another black priesthood holder – William McCary (abt 1811-aft 1854; Mississippi), who had been baptized, ordained, and lived briefly at Winter Quarters before he apostatized in a rather spectacular way. He was both a magician and a ventriloquist, and when he announced that he was the embodiment of several figures from the Bible and the Book of Mormon, and that he could manipulate a staff the same as Aaron and the priests of Pharoah had, he had the skills to impress and fool many gullible Saints. He was excommunicated after announcing himself as a prophet, and he set up a rival church near Winter Quarters, which included his plural marriages to a group of white women.
Interestingly, it is only in the summer of 1847 that the first anti-black sermons are given by Mormon leaders. Those sermons linking unworthiness to race may have been targeting McCary personally, and not the entire black race.
The matter of the priesthood restriction seems to have been at least a low-key concern of David O. McKay throughout his administration. He believed that one day the situation would change.
There is not now, and there never has been a doctrine in this church that the negroes are under a divine curse. There is no doctrine in the church of any kind pertaining to the negro. We believe that we have a scriptural precedent for withholding the priesthood from the negro. It is a practice, not a doctrine, and the practice someday will be changed.
He also took steps to “limit the limitation,” if you will – he reversed the policy of local leaders in South Africa, and in Brazil, who had required converts to trace their ancestry to prove that they had no black forebears before they could receive the priesthood. He clarified that the limitation applied only to African blacks: dark skinned people from elsewhere – Fijians, Australian Aboriginals, the “Negritos” of the Philippines – were to be ordained to the priesthood without consideration for skin color. He agonized over the increasing pleas from Africans who had become converted to the gospel and who pled to have missionaries sent and branches organized there.
As had church presidents before him, Spencer W. Kimball made the question a matter of thought and prayer. He reviewed the findings of previous presidents who had investigated the origin of the priesthood restriction. And we have statements from President Kimball that by early 1978, the question was on his mind constantly. He wrote,
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 … I wanted to do what he wanted. I talked about it to him and said, ‘Lord, I want only what is right. … We want only the thing that thou dost want, and we want it when you want it, and not until.
Late that spring, he asked the other members of the First Presidency and the Quorum of Twelve Apostles to make it a matter of prayer, and to come to their June 1st meeting prepared to state their feelings and the results of their prayers.
Several of the apostles have spoken about what happened that day. After each had spoken his mind, the First Presidency and ten of the Twelve (one was out of the country and another was hospitalized) gathered around the altar to pray.
From David B. Haight:
We witnessed an outpouring of the Spirit which bonded our souls together in perfect unity – a glorious experience. In that bond of unity we felt our total dependence upon heavenly direction.
From Bruce R. McConkie:
The Spirit of the Lord rested mightily upon us all; we felt something akin to what happened on the day of Pentecost and at the dedication of the Kirtland Temple. From the midst of eternity, the voice of God, conveyed by the power of the Spirit, spoke to his prophet … And we all heard the same voice, received the same message, and became personal witnesses that the word received was the mind and will and voice of the Lord.
From Gordon B. Hinckley:
It was a quiet and sublime occasion. There was not the sound ‘as of a rushing mighty wind,” … No voice audible to our physical ears was heard. But the voice of the Spirit whispered with a certainty into our minds and our very souls.
From these quotations and others, we understand that the revelation came to these priesthood leaders through an overpowering experience of the Spirit, but not in words that could be written. It may be for this reason that rather than a written revelation, as Joseph Smith was wont to receive, the document that marks this revelation in the Doctrine and Covenants is a statement signed by the First Presidency, announcing to the world the import of their spiritual experience.
6 As we have witnessed the expansion of the work of the Lord over the earth, we have been grateful that people of many nations have responded to the message of the restored gospel, and have joined the Church in ever-increasing numbers. This, in turn, has inspired us with a desire to extend to every worthy member of the Church all of the privileges and blessings which the gospel affords.
7 Aware of the promises made by the prophets and presidents of the Church who have preceded us that at some time, in God’s eternal plan, all of our brethren who are worthy may receive the priesthood, and witnessing the faithfulness of those from whom the priesthood has been withheld, we have pleaded long and earnestly in behalf of these, our faithful brethren, spending many hours in the Upper Room of the Temple supplicating the Lord for divine guidance.
8 He has heard our prayers, and by revelation has confirmed 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. Accordingly, all worthy male members of the Church may be ordained to the priesthood without regard for race or color. Priesthood leaders are instructed to follow the policy of carefully interviewing all candidates for ordination to either the Aaronic or the Melchizedek Priesthood to insure that they meet the established standards for worthiness.
9 We declare with soberness that the Lord has now made known his will for the blessing of all his children throughout the earth who will hearken to the voice of his authorized servants, and prepare themselves to receive every blessing of the gospel.
I was 19, and working for the fire department on June 8, 1978. The music playing on the station radio broke for a regular newscast, and I heard a local Las Vegas announcer read an announcement that the Mormon priesthood would now be extended to all worthy male members of the Church. That was hardly an official source, and I had no particular reason to believe it. Nor, I admit, had I been particularly concerned about whether blacks could hold the priesthood or not, so this was not an answer to prayer. But as I heard that announcement, I knew instantly that the newscaster was right, that this was an accurate report, and that it was right that all worthy men should hold the priesthood. I looked around for someone to share the news with, but there wasn’t anyone there who would have appreciated it. An hour later, a Latter-day Saint fire inspector came in. He looked at me, realized that I had heard, and picked me up in a bear hug and swung me around – at the time it was the only way to express our feelings.
Sometime later, I heard about a talk given by Bruce R. McConkie in August 1978, to seminary and institute teachers meeting in a symposium at BYU. People had asked him how this revelation meshed with all the teachings that had theretofore been taught by the Church. 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…. It doesn’t make a particle of difference what anybody ever said about the Negro matter before the first day of June of this year.
Since then, other apostles have voiced similar sentiments:
From Jeffrey R. Holland, in answer to a question posed two years ago during the PBS documentary on The Mormons:
The folklore must never be perpetuated. … They [early church leaders] were doing the best they knew … All I can say is, however well intended the explanations were, I think almost all of them were inadequate and/or wrong.
I’ve debated whether to go through what Elder Holland calls “folklore” – if you want someone to forget something, is it helpful to tell them what they should forget? In this case, I think it is, because if you’re from my generation or older, you grew up hearing the folklore taught from the pulpit and in the classroom over and over again, and it may be helpful to be reminded that these things are NOT true:
- We do not believe that Africans are the descendants of Cain. There is no scripture or revelation to that effect, and in fact it is a folk belief that was prevalent in general Christianity before the Restoration, and did not come by way of revelation within the Restoration..
- We do not believe that dark skin is a curse.
- We do not believe that Africans were neutral in the war in heaven, or that they were less valiant in that war.
These are the ideas that I grew up with that have since been repudiated; there may be more. If identifying these things as “folklore” makes you uneasy at all, because they are so deeply ingrained in your memory or because of the authorities you heard teach them, I would urge you to spend some time looking through Conference talks and reading materials published by the Church since 1978 – you will not find those ideas taught any more. Anything along those lines comes either from the days before 1978, or from someone who does not have authority to speak for the Church.
Finally, I would like to remind us all of some statements made by President Hinckley in the April 2006 priesthood session of General Conference.
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. …
Now I am told that racial slurs and denigrating remarks are sometimes heard among us. I remind you that no man who makes disparaging remarks concerning those of another race can consider himself a true disciple of Christ. Nor can he consider himself to be in harmony with the teachings of the Church of Christ.
How can any man holding the Melchizedek Priesthood arrogantly assume that he is eligible for the priesthood whereas another who lives a righteous life but whose skin is of a different color is ineligible?
As we said in the beginning, “we believe that God will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the kingdom of heaven.” This is a blessing, of course, but it can also be unsettling if we are unwilling to relinquish old beliefs, or to acknowledge that the way things were in the past isn’t necessarily the way the Lord wants them to be in the future. [bear testimony]
[If there is time, ask for memories of hearing of the 1978 revelation, and for testimonies of continuing revelation.]
UPDATED 29 December 2009: I have posted the slides used with this lesson, and a link to download the actual PowerPoint presentation, here. Feel free to use or adapt this lesson and those slides, should you wish. Also, if you have copied this prior to the afternoon of 30 December 2009, note Margaret’s correction in comment 29 (I’ve removed the incorrect line and photo.)