Race and The Priesthood
by Bishop Joshua Wallace
Lesson Topic: Race and the Priesthood
This lesson was given Sunday, December 30th to the Medford 4th Ward, Central Point Oregon Stake of Zion in a combined Melchizedek Priesthood and Relief Society meeting. Here you will find the outline and notes for the lesson. Parts of the Church’s statment on race are included in the outline to help add some context. The parts that are in BOLD AND ITALICS are the editorial commentary I offered while giving the lesson.
I deeply respect the spiritual laws of receiving inspiration and revelation for individuals and wards. In mid December our ward council had a 60-70 min discussion about this topic and unanimously sustained me in teaching the topic to the adults of our ward. This lesson plan was developed for the Medford 4th Ward and may or may not be what is right for other wards.
Objectives and Invitation:
1) To inform
a. Some past theories and teachings of the church and its members have now been disavowed. All members should be aware.
b. We have the responsibility to not teach the theories of the past as if they are true and to correct them if we hear them.
2) To gain empathy
a. “Empathy is the process of placing oneself in the framework of another, perceiving the world as the other perceives it, sharing his or her world imaginatively” ( Thomas Oden, an American United Methodist theologian and religious author).
3) To build faith
a. By looking at the extraordinary examples of Black members who remained faithful despite not being able to receive saving ordinances.
b. By looking at the example of a latter-day prophet who would not give up the wrestle (Genesis 32: 24-26).
4) Invitation: To evaluate the traditions of our Fathers, as The Book of Mormon so frequently teaches, and to be willing to repent of those that take away light and truth. Receiving revelation is a form of repentance, which “denotes a change of mind, a fresh view about God, about oneself, and about the world…[and]…a turning of the heart and will to God.” (Bible Dictionary: Repentance)
a. Doctrine and Covenants 93:39 “And that wicked one cometh and taketh away light and truth, through disobedience, from the children of men, and because of the tradition of their fathers.” 40 “But I have commanded you to bring up your children in light and truth.”
A) One copy of the documentary Nobody Knows: The Untold Story of Black Mormons*. – “It is an award-winning documentary about African American Latter-day Saints.”
“Few people, Mormon and non-Mormon, are aware that there has been an African American presence in the LDS Church from its earliest days, that the vanguard company of Mormon pioneers included three “colored servants” (slaves), and that subsequent pioneer companies included both freeborn Blacks (such as Jane Manning and Isaac James) and enslaved Blacks, such as Biddy Smith Mason and Elizabeth Flake.”
“This documentary talks about that little-known legacy, and confronts the hard issues which surfaced in the most turbulent years of the Civil Rights Movement, when the Church continued to restrict its priesthood from those of African descent (a policy put into place in 1852). It discusses the context for that restriction, and how it was finally lifted. It also addresses the challenges of modern Black Mormon pioneers.” To purchase the DVD, click here.
B) One copy of the Gospel Topic article “Race and the Priesthood” for each participant in the lesson. Click here to download a copy.
Explain the topic of the lesson, the materials that will be used (and where they can be found), and how it will be presented.
After passing out a copy of “Race and the Priesthood,” explain that starting in the back row, each person will read one paragraph outloud until we read the entire article. I will pause in certain places to add comments and to also show video clips from the documentary “Nobody Knows: The Untold Story of Black Mormons.”
Go over the lesson objectives and the lesson invitation then start reading.
“In theology and practice, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints embraces the universal human family. Latter-day Saint scripture and teachings affirm that God loves all of His children and makes salvation available to all. God created the many diverse races and ethnicities and esteems them all equally. As the Book of Mormon puts it, “all are alike unto God.
“The structure and organization of the Church encourage racial integration. Latter-day Saints attend Church services according to the geographical boundaries of their local ward, or congregation. By definition, this means that the racial, economic, and demographic composition of Mormon congregations generally mirrors that of the wider local community. The Church’s lay ministry also tends to facilitate integration: a black bishop may preside over a mostly white congregation; a Hispanic woman may be paired with an Asian woman to visit the homes of a racially diverse membership. Church members of different races and ethnicities regularly minister in one another’s homes and serve alongside one another as teachers, as youth leaders, and in myriad other assignments in their local congregations. Such practices make The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints a thoroughly integrated faith.
“Despite this modern reality, for much of its history—from the mid-1800s until 1978—the Church did not ordain men of black African descent to its priesthood or allow black men or women to participate in temple endowment or sealing ordinances.”
Pause and explain that the priesthood ban also restricted Black members from serving in leadership positions and missions.
“The Church was established in 1830, during an era of great racial division in the United States. At the time, many people of African descent lived in slavery, and racial distinctions and prejudice were not just common but customary among white Americans. Those realities, though unfamiliar and disturbing today, influenced all aspects of people’s lives, including their religion. Many Christian churches of that era, for instance, were segregated along racial lines. From the beginnings of the Church, people of every race and ethnicity could be baptized and received as members. Toward the end of his life, Church founder Joseph Smith openly opposed slavery. There has never been a Churchwide policy of segregated congregations.
“During the first two decades of the Church’s existence, a few black men were ordained to the priesthood. One of these men, Elijah Abel, also participated in temple ceremonies in Kirtland, Ohio, and was later baptized as proxy for deceased relatives in Nauvoo, Illinois. There is no evidence that any black men were denied the priesthood during Joseph Smith’s lifetime.
There were at least 7 Black men ordained to the Priesthood before the ban. Probably the most well known is Elijah Abel.
Show clip from DVD: (Elijah Abel 5:46 – 7:50)
“In 1852, President Brigham Young publicly announced that men of black African descent could no longer be ordained to the priesthood, though thereafter blacks continued to join the Church through baptism and receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost. Following the death of Brigham Young, subsequent Church presidents restricted blacks from receiving the temple endowment or being married in the temple. Over time, Church leaders and members advanced many theories to explain the priesthood and temple restrictions. None of these explanations is accepted today as the official doctrine of the Church.
The Church in an American Racial Culture
“The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was restored amidst a highly contentious racial culture in which whites were afforded great privilege. In 1790, the U.S. Congress limited citizenship to “free white person[s].” Over the next half century, issues of race divided the country—while slave labor was legal in the more agrarian South, it was eventually banned in the more urbanized North. Even so, racial discrimination was widespread in the North as well as the South, and many states implemented laws banning interracial marriage. In 1857, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that blacks possessed “no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” A generation after the Civil War (1861–65) led to the end of slavery in the United States, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that “separate but equal” facilities for blacks and whites were constitutional, a decision that legalized a host of public color barriers until the Court reversed itself in 1954. In 1850, the U.S. Congress created Utah Territory, and the U.S. president appointed Brigham Young to the position of territorial governor. Southerners who had converted to the Church and migrated to Utah with their slaves raised the question of slavery’s legal status in the territory. In two speeches delivered before the Utah territorial legislature in January and February 1852, Brigham Young announced a policy restricting men of black African descent from priesthood ordination. At the same time, President Young said that at some future day, black Church members would “have [all] the privilege and more” enjoyed by other members.
“The justifications for this restriction echoed the widespread ideas about racial inferiority that had been used to argue for the legalization of black “servitude” in the Territory of Utah. According to one view, which had been promulgated in the United States from at least the 1730s, blacks descended from the same lineage as the biblical Cain, who slew his brother Abel. Those who accepted this view believed that God’s “curse” on Cain was the mark of a dark skin. Black servitude was sometimes viewed as a second curse placed upon Noah’s grandson Canaan as a result of Ham’s indiscretion toward his father. Although slavery was not a significant factor in Utah’s economy and was soon abolished, the restriction on priesthood ordinations remained.”
Removing the Restriction
“Even after 1852, at least two black Mormons continued to hold the priesthood. When one of these men, Elijah Abel, petitioned to receive his temple endowment in 1879, his request was denied. Jane Manning James, a faithful black member who crossed the plains and lived in Salt Lake City until her death in 1908, similarly asked to enter the temple; she was allowed to perform baptisms for the dead for her ancestors but was not allowed to participate in other ordinances. The curse of Cain was often put forward as justification for the priesthood and temple restrictions. Around the turn of the century, another explanation gained currency: blacks were said to have been less than fully valiant in the premortal battle against Lucifer and, as a consequence, were restricted from priesthood and temple blessings.”
Before watching the next clip invite class to think of Thomas Oden’s definition of empathy. “Empathy is the process of placing oneself in the framework of another, perceiving the world as the other perceives it, sharing his or her world imaginatively.”
Play clip from DVD (Jane Manning James conversion and act of charity 7:50 – 10:33)
“By the late 1940s and 1950s, racial integration was becoming more common in American life. Church President David O. McKay emphasized that the restriction extended only to men of black African descent. The Church had always allowed Pacific Islanders to hold the priesthood, and President McKay clarified that black Fijians and Australian Aborigines could also be ordained to the priesthood and instituted missionary work among them. In South Africa, President McKay reversed a prior policy that required prospective priesthood holders to trace their lineage out of Africa.
“Nevertheless, given the long history of withholding the priesthood from men of black African descent, Church leaders believed that a revelation from God was needed to alter the policy, and they made ongoing efforts to understand what should be done. After praying for guidance, President McKay did not feel impressed to lift the ban.
“As the Church grew worldwide, its overarching mission to “go ye therefore, and teach all nations” seemed increasingly incompatible with the priesthood and temple restrictions. The Book of Mormon declared that the gospel message of salvation should go forth to “every nation, kindred, tongue, and people.” While there were no limits on whom the Lord invited to “partake of his goodness” through baptism, the priesthood and temple restrictions created significant barriers, a point made increasingly evident as the Church spread in international locations with diverse and mixed racial heritages.
Before watching the video clip about Darius Gray’s conversion, give a short bio of who he is and remind the class about the lesson objective: To build faith
a. By looking at the extraordinary examples of Black members who remained faithful despite not being able to receive saving ordinances.
Play clip from DVD (Darius Gray’s Conversion Experience 25:02 – 29:20)
“Brazil in particular presented many challenges. Unlike the United States and South Africa where legal and de facto racism led to deeply segregated societies, Brazil prided itself on its open, integrated, and mixed racial heritage. In 1975, the Church announced that a temple would be built in São Paulo, Brazil. As the temple construction proceeded, Church authorities encountered faithful black and mixed-ancestry Mormons who had contributed financially and in other ways to the building of the São Paulo temple, a sanctuary they realized they would not be allowed to enter once it was completed. Their sacrifices, as well as the conversions of thousands of Nigerians and Ghanaians in the 1960s and early 1970s, moved Church leaders.
“Church leaders pondered promises made by prophets such as Brigham Young that black members would one day receive priesthood and temple blessings. In June 1978, after “spending many hours in the Upper Room of the [Salt Lake] Temple supplicating the Lord for divine guidance,” Church President Spencer W. Kimball, his counselors in the First Presidency, and members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles received a revelation. “He has heard our prayers, and by revelation has confirmed that the long-promised day has come,” the First Presidency announced on June 8. The First Presidency stated that they were “aware of the promises made by the prophets and presidents of the Church who have preceded us” that “all of our brethren who are worthy may receive the priesthood.” The revelation rescinded the restriction on priesthood ordination. It also extended the blessings of the temple to all worthy Latter-day Saints, men and women. The First Presidency statement regarding the revelation was canonized in the Doctrine and Covenants as Official Declaration 2.”
Invitation to all ward members to read “Spencer W. Kimball and the Revelation on Priesthood,” by Edward L. Kimball in order to assist in meeting the lesson objective (click here to read article). Through this wonderful article we learn about President Kimball, his courage, faith, patience, desire to do what was right and to build unity. He truly was a latter day prophet!
“This “revelation on the priesthood,” as it is commonly known in the Church, was a landmark revelation and a historic event. Those who were present at the time described it in reverent terms. Gordon B. Hinckley, then a member of the Quorum of the Twelve, remembered it this way: “There was a hallowed and sanctified atmosphere in the room. 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. . . . Not one of us who was present on that occasion was ever quite the same after that. Nor has the Church been quite the same.”
“Reaction worldwide was overwhelmingly positive among Church members of all races. Many Latter-day Saints wept for joy at the news. Some reported feeling a collective weight lifted from their shoulders. The Church began priesthood ordinations for men of African descent immediately, and black men and women entered temples throughout the world. Soon after the revelation, Elder Bruce R. McConkie, an apostle, spoke of new “light and knowledge” that had erased previously “limited understanding.”
Here is an amazing story about a Brazilian family who exercised great faith:
“In 1973, Helvécio and Rudá Martins and their son Marcus (see essay on page 79) received extraordinary patriarchal blessings that promised things that seemed impossible. The patriarch told Helvécio and Rudá that they would be privileged to live on the earth in the joy of an eternal covenant. He also promised their son Marcus that he would preach the gospel, and the language the patriarch used suggested to them a full-time mission. Despite uncertainty about the blessing, the Martinses opened a mission savings account for Marcus.
“In Brazil, Helvécio Martins returned home from work to find his wife Rudá extremely excited. “I have news, amazing news!” Her friend had received a telephone call from the United States about the announcement. Helvécio could not respond. Could it be true? A rumor? Then the telephone, which had been out of service because of nearby construction, suddenly rang and a call from a friend in Salt Lake City confirmed the news.
“The wedding invitations for the Martinses’ son, Marcus, had already been distributed when the announcement came. But he and his fiancée, Mirian Abelin Barbosa, decided to postpone the wedding because he now could serve a mission. He became the first black missionary to be called after the revelation and served in the Brazil Porto Alegre Mission.” (Edward L. Kimball, Spencer W. Kimball and the Revelation on Priesthood)
On Receiving Revelation:
“Revelations will probably never come unless they are desired. I think few people receive revelations while lounging on the couch or while playing cards or while relaxing. I believe most revelations would come when a man is on his tip toes, reaching as high as he can for something which he knows he needs, and then there bursts upon him the answer to his problems.” President Kimball (Edward L. Kimball, Spencer W. Kimball and the Revelation on Priesthood)
And Elder Hinckley said, “It is a tremendous thing. It came as a result of great effort and prayer, anxious seeking and pleading. Anyone who does not think that is a part of receiving revelation does not understand the process.” (Edward L. Kimball, Spencer W. Kimball and the Revelation on Priesthood)
The Church Today
“Today, the Church disavows the theories advanced in the past that black skin is a sign of divine disfavor or curse, or that it reflects actions in a premortal life; that mixed-race marriages are a sin; or that blacks or people of any other race or ethnicity are inferior in any way to anyone else. Church leaders today unequivocally condemn all racism, past and present, in any form.”
This video clip contains an excerpt from a General Conference address by President Hinckley and an interview with “Dr. Cecil “Chip” Murray, retired pastor of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church of Los Angeles, which was founded by a former slave of Mormon pioneers.”
Play clip from DVD (Gordon B. Hinckley on racism and apology to African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church) 59:25 – 1:01:30)
“Since that day in 1978, the Church has looked to the future, as membership among Africans, African Americans and others of African descent has continued to grow rapidly. While Church records for individual members do not indicate an individual’s race or ethnicity, the number of Church members of African descent is now in the hundreds of thousands.
“The Church proclaims that redemption through Jesus Christ is available to the entire human family on the conditions God has prescribed. It affirms that God is “no respecter of persons” and emphatically declares that anyone who is righteous—regardless of race—is favored of Him. The teachings of the Church in relation to God’s children are epitomized by a verse in the second book of Nephi: “[The Lord] denieth none that cometh unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; . . . all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile.”
By listening to the testimonies of Black latter-day saints we can strengthen our own faith and be inspired to be more faithful and patient as we seek blessings from the Lord. These testimonies also help us to work on gaining more Christ like empathy.
Play clip from DVD (The testimony of Black latter-day saints 1:04:33 – 1:06:46)
Invite ward members to study the MANY CITATIONS AND RESOURCES at https://www.lds.org/topics/race-and-the-priesthood?lang=eng in order to gain a better understanding of the topic and to increase faith.
Reiterate the objectives, their applications, and share testimony:
1) To inform
a. We now know the doctrine, so we must stop teaching false doctrine and we have an obligation to correct it if/when we hear it.
b. It is my testimony that it is our responsibility as parents to teach our children the truth. When our sons and daughters are serving missions they should not learn about the Priesthood ban from an investigator. They should learn about it from us, from a faithful source and in a faithful environment well before they serve.
2) To gain empathy and build faith
a. As I empathize with and listen to the stories of Black members who remained faithful despite not being able to receive saving ordinances my faith is strengthened, I’m given a great gift of examples and I’m inspired to be better.
b. As I study the courageous effort of President Kimball to receive the revelation to lift the ban my admiration for him soars. He has shown us all how to look at the traditions of our fathers, to humbly ask the Lord if they are correct, and to have the courage to repent if necessary. Through the process of preparing for this lesson my testimony of latter day prophets has been fortified.
End with reading John Gibson’s (a black member of our ward) testimony which he wrote down for me to read:
I joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1984. I have a testimony of the truthfulness of the gospel. I know this is the true church.
I don’t see color. I want my Father in Heaven to know how grateful I am for all my blessings. Especially the blessings of the atonement, family and the temple. I concentrate on being grateful, not on issues of race that divide us and “muddy the waters.”
I have faced discrimination in many forms, never at church. I never dwell on those experiences; I want to use my energy on self-improvement instead of judgement and negativity. We need to be open to learning from each other – our differences and our similarities.
We are all children of God.
The one question we should ask ourselves is: Why are we here? The answer: To spread the gospel to everyone.
The meeting ended with John Gibson’s wife, Rhonda Gibson, giving the benediction.
*We obtained permission from Margaret Young, one of the producers, writers, and directors of Nobody Knows: The Untold Story of Black Mormons, to place clips of the documentary into the body of this post.