This week marks the thirtieth anniversary of the revelation extending the Priesthood to all worthy male members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This essay explains why they did not have access to the Priesthood until 1978.
Children of God
Regardless of race, ethnicity, or skin color, all men and women are children of a loving Heavenly Father. Because we are all children of God, we are also brothers and sisters to each other. Therefore, when we are interacting with others, we must always remember that each of us has a spark of divinity within. It is our eternal heritage bestowed upon us by reason of our spiritual births.
Although the stereotypical Mormon is a white Utahn, the fact is there are more Mormons outside of the United States than within. There are actually more members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who would be considered minorities than there are white members of the Church.
It is estimated that one million of the thirteen million members of the Church are black.
Click here to read about the demographics of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Skin Color in the Scriptures
In the scriptures, we learn the posterity of Cain, or the Canaanites, received a skin of blackness (Moses 7:8), as did the posterity of Laman and Lemuel—Nephi’s older brothers—or the Lamanites (The Lamanites are among the ancestors of modern Native Americans). (2 Nephi 5:21). While we do not know why the Canaanites became black, the Book of Mormon explains why the Lamanites became black.
The Lamanites rejected the gospel of Jesus Christ and sought to kill those who believed. Because they rejected the gospel, God cursed the Lamanites. The curse was not black skin; rather, they were separated from the gospel and the blessings of the Priesthood. (2 Nephi 5:21).
To prevent the righteous from falling into the same practices of the Lamanites by intermarrying with them, God distinguished the Lamanites by causing their skins to become dark. (2 Nephi 5:21). It is likely that God did the same with the Canaanites.
These events in no way justify racism or bigotry, and those born of African or Native American descent are not guilty of any sin or transgression. Instead, they are descended from men and women who failed to follow the commands of God. And we must remember that all of us have descended from men and women who failed to live according to the commandments of God. In fact, none of us fully comply with the commandments.
Our skin color is no indicator of the degree to which we personally please God.
Furthermore, these scriptures do not explain why other groups of our brothers and sisters have different skin color.
The Book of Mormon was written, primarily, to the Lamanite nations. From the time the Lamanites separated themselves from the Nephites (the righteous group living in the Americas), the Nephites sent missionaries to restore the Lamanites to righteousness, but their efforts were in vain. (Enos 1:20). The first prophets who wrote in the Book of Mormon hoped their writings would one day reach the Lamanites to bring them back to the fulness of the Gospel. (Enos 1:15-17).
For five hundred years, the Lamanites and Nephites lived in enmity until four brothers—Ammon, Aaron, Omner, and Himni—and their friends desired to bring the Lamanites to the knowledge of Jesus Christ. These brothers, after significant struggles, succeeded in bringing tens of thousands of the Lamanites back to the fulness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Concerning the Lamanites who accepted the Gospel, Mormon wrote:
And as sure as the Lord liveth, so sure as many as believed, or as many as were brought to the knowledge of the truth, through the preaching of Ammon and hisbrethren, according to the spirit of revelation and prophecy, and the power of God working miracles in them—yea, I say unto you, as the Lord liveth, as many of the Lamanites as believed in their preaching, and were converted unto the Lord, never did fall away. (Alma 23:6; To read the entire account of the mission of Ammon and his brothers to the Lamanites, see Alma chapters 17–26).
After these Lamanites received the gospel of Jesus Christ, God took the curse away from them. That is, they received the Priesthood, and their skins remained dark. (Alma 23:18).
After the miraculous missions of Ammon, Aaron, Omner, and Himni there were times when the Lamanites were more righteous than the Nephites. (See e.g. Helaman 6:1). And during the time of Christ, the righteous Nephites and Lamanites united together. During this time, Mormon recounts that some Lamanites lost their dark skin and became like the Nephites. (3 Nephi 2:15). But this change did not happen to all righteous Lamanites.
After Christ was resurrected and appeared to the inhabitants of the Americas, the distinction between Nephites and Lamanites disappeared, and they became "one, the children of Christ, and heirs to the kingdom of God." (4 Nephi 1:17). Two hundred years after the coming of Christ, men and women separated themselves from the righteous, and the distinction between Lamanites and Nephites again arose. The two groups fought until the Nephites—who had become wicked—were destroyed.
Today, the Lamanite nations (including Central and South America) are blossoming as a rose as the fulness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is being preached to them. And I feel impressed to share with you this experience:
In 1999, President Gordon B. Hinckley dedicated the Guayaquil, Ecuador Temple. During the dedication services, a choir from Otavalo, Ecuador—comprised of full-blood Native Americans and some Mestizos—sang "I Know that My Redeemer Lives" in Quichua. After the hymn, President Hinckley stood, tears streaming down his cheeks. He said father Lehi (Nephi, Laman, and Lemuel’s father) was present with them and was weeping for joy because his children were being redeemed.
Priesthood and the Races of Mankind
Of all the practices of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the practice from 1849 to 1978 denying male members of the Church of African descent the Priesthood is, perhaps, the most difficult to understand. For decades, members and leaders of the Church struggled with this practice and devised separate theories to explain why men of African descent were barred from receiving the Priesthood. (If you google this topic, you will find sundry justifications; these justifications are not official Church doctrine, and some of them were proven wrong in 1978.)
The practice is even more difficult to understand because Joseph Smith actually ordained black men to the Priesthood. The first man of African descent to receive the Priesthood was Elijah Abel. Elijah was an escaped slave who joined the Church in 1832. In 1836, he was ordained an Elder, presumably by Joseph Smith, and a few months later, Zebedee Coltrin ordained Elijah a seventy. Elijah served several missions for the Church and died in full standing at the age of 84. However, Elijah was never allowed to receive the ordinances of the Temple during his lifetime.
There were others of African descent who received the Priesthood, but in 1849, Brigham Young received a revelation that the Priesthood could no longer be given to men of African descent. Those who had received the Priesthood continued to officiate within it, but no new ordination of black men to the Priesthood took place.
While membership in the Church was open to all, regardless of race, this ban lasted until 1978 when President Spencer W. Kimball received a revelation declaring that all worthy men could receive the Priesthood and the ordinances of the Temple were available to all.
Personally, I have also struggled with the practice of denying the Priesthood to an entire race of mankind. But as I have searched the scriptures, I have learned a few things about the Priesthood and who can receive it. But I must qualify the comments which follow: These are my opinions, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has never issued an official statement explaining the practice of denying the Priesthood to blacks from 1849 to 1978 other than that Brigham Young received a revelation which ended the early practice of ordaining men of African descent to the Priesthood.
The key doctrine in understanding why some are denied the Priesthood is that God has decreed different times for different nations and peoples to receive the fulness of the Priesthood. And the ability to receive the Priesthood—for the vast majority of human history—depended upon the righteousness of one’s ancestors.
Adam, in addition to being the first man, was the first man to receive the Priesthood. (Moses 6:64-68). His sons, including Cain and Abel, also received the Priesthood, as evidenced by their authority to offer sacrifices to the Lord—ordinances pertaining to the Holy Priesthood. (Genesis 4:3-6; Moses 5:19-21).
But Cain was not faithful to the Priesthood which he bore. He loved Satan more than God, offered sacrifice to the Lord because Satan commanded it, and murdered his brother Abel. Because of his actions, Cain became Perdition and posterity would suffer for millenia in that they would not have access to the fulness of the Priesthood. There was even a time when the Lord’s servants were not even allowed to preach the Gospel to Cain’s posterity. (Moses 7:12).
As stated earlier, eventually, the children of Cain were cursed in that they could not hold the Priesthood. They also received a skin of blackness to distinguish them from those who obeyed the commandments.
At the time of the Great Flood, Noah and three of his sons, Ham, Shem, and Japheth, were saved with their wives, and no others were saved. Noah held the Priesthood. (D&C 107:52). Ham did not respect Noah or his Priesthood, and as a result, Noah cursed Ham’s son Canaan so that neither he nor his posterity could receive the Priesthood. (Genesis 9:20-27). Canaan’s mother, Egyptus, was a Canaanite, and it is from Canaan that the African race descended.
But God’s curse pertained only to the Priesthood, and He actually blessed the posterity of Canaan with the blessings of the Earth. (Abraham 1:26).
Shem, on the other hand, became a great High Priest, and through him and his posterity, the Priesthood continued throughout the generations of the Earth. (D&C 138:41). Therefore, the Semitic races could claim the Priesthood by living righteously. And it is my understanding that only the Semitic nations had the right to receive the priesthood.
One of Shem’s posterity, Abraham, did exactly that and entered into a covenant with God that through his seed all nations would receive the blessings of the Priesthood. (Abraham 2:10-11). Abraham’s posterity includes Isaac, Jacob—whose name was changed to Israel—Joseph, and the great prophets of Israel. Additionally, Jesus Christ descended through the lineage of Abraham. And anyone descended from Abraham could claim a right to the Priesthood through righteous living.
When Moses liberated the house of Israel from Egypt, God desired to reveal the fulness of the Priesthood to them. But they were not ready, so He gave them a law of strict commandments and performances. Additionally, He took the fulness of the Priesthood from them and established the Levitical order of the Priesthood. (D&C 84:23-27).
After the Law of Moses was established, only those of the house of Levi were allowed to receive the Priesthood, and if they could not prove their lineage, they were forbidden from receiving the Priesthood; some were even expelled from it. (Ezra 2:61-63).
When Christ came, He restored the fulness of the Priesthood to the House of Israel. (Hebrews chapter 7). And all those belonging to the House of Israel became eligible to receive the Higher or Melchizedek Priesthood. But during His ministry, Christ did not extend the fulness of the Gospel to the Gentile nations. (Matthew 10:6; Matthew 15:24).
But after Christ’s resurrection and ascension, Peter received a revelation which extended the blessings of the Gospel, including the Priesthood to the Gentile nations. (Acts chapter 10). This was the first time in the history of the world that the category of worthy men who were eligible to receive the Priesthood was enlarged!
Blacks and the Priesthood
Yet Peter’s vision did not extend to the African nations, although no one was denied membership in the ancient Church of Jesus Christ.
After the restoration of the Gospel of Jesus Christ through the Prophet Joseph Smith, the Lord began preparing His children of African descent to receive the Priesthood. As stated, a select few African-American men were allowed to receive the Priesthood before the Lord revealed to Brigham Young that the prohibition on Blacks receiving the Priesthood was still in force.
In 1965, a Nigerian man, Anthony Obinna, had a dream: A tall man with a walking stick took him to a beautiful building and was given a tour of all its rooms. A few years later, he had the dream again. In an old copy of the Reader’s Digest, he saw a picture of the building: the Salt Lake Temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It was the first time he had ever even heard of the Church. He wrote the Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints requesting membership. He received a letter that missionaries were not being sent to Africa. After the revelation extending all the blessings of the Priesthood to all worthy members of the Church was received, Anthony Obinna was the first person baptized in Africa.
In 1971, concerned for the Black members of the Church, President Harold B. Lee directed Elders Gordon B. Hinckley, Thomas S. Monson, and Boyd K. Packer of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles to meet with three black members of the Church—Ruffin Bridgeforth, Darius Gray, and Eugene Orr—to create a support program for members of the Church of African descent. Together, they founded the Genesis Group of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The group continues to meet on the first Sunday of each month.
For decades, Presidents of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, members of the First Presidency, and members of the Quorum of the Twelve pleaded with the Lord to extend the blessings of the Priesthood and the Temple to all worthy members of the Church. Nevertheless, the Lord did not allow it.
In 1978, Spencer W. Kimball, President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was in the Upper Room of the Salt Lake Temple with other members of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. He prayed powerfully on behalf of the members of the Church and the inhabitants of the Earth who were of African descent. Gordon B. Hinckley, a former president of the Church was present when the revelation was received and said:
I do not recall the exact words which [Spencer W. Kimball] spoke, but I do recall my own feelings and the nature of the expressions of my brethren. 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.The Spirit of God was there. And by the power of the Holy Ghost, there came to that prophet an assurance that the thing for which he prayed was right, that the time had come, and that now the wondrous blessings of the Priesthood should be extended to worthy men everywhere regardless of lineage.
Soon thereafter, the First Presidency issued the following statement:
June 8, 1978To all general and local priesthood officers of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints throughout the world:Dear Brethren: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.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. 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.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.Sincerely yours,Spencer W. KimballN. Eldon TannerMarion G. RomneyThe First Presidency
Vicarious Work for the Dead and the Priesthood
Because it is not just to be punished eternally for the wickedness of our ancestors, our Heavenly Father has prepared a way for His children who were denied the fulness of the blessings of the Priesthood in this life to receive them. These ordinances can be received in the Holy Temples and are available to all of God’s children, regardless of race or lineage.