No doubt the most dramatic moment of the Spencer W. Kimball administration and probably the highlight of Church history in the twentieth century occurred in June 1978, when the First Presidency announced a revelation allowing worthy men of all races to be ordained to the priesthood and allowing worthy men and women access to all temple ordinances. The history of this issue reaches back to the early years of the Church. Without understanding the background, one cannot appreciate the magnitude of the 1978 revelation.
When the Church was very young a few black men were ordained to the priesthood. But soon such ordinations ceased, and a tradition grew, supported by common Christian beliefs and certain scriptural interpretations, that African blacks bore the burden of a curse levied by God on Cain and his posterity, which precluded them from participating fully in the life of the Church.
After World War II, the civil rights movement grew powerfully, calling for equal legal and social status for blacks. The movement gained strength through the 1960s, resulting in strong criticism of the Church for its exclusion of blacks from the priesthood and the temple, motivating some Church leaders to brace against attack and others to ask whether the time had come to seek a change.
The Traditional Explanation for Restrictive Policy
The Church in which Spencer W. Kimball grew up in the early twentieth century accepted without question that “colored” or “Negro” members of the Church could not receive the priesthood. They were ineligible for missionary service and all priesthood leadership positions. Neither men nor women of African descent could receive the temple endowment, although they could be baptized vicariously for their ancestors. They could receive patriarchal blessings, serve as secretaries (though not as ward clerks), teach classes, and participate in the music program. African American women could be visiting teachers, but men could not be home teachers because it was a priesthood assignment. Skin color was not the issue—blacks from Polynesia or Australia faced no such limitations. “Lineage,” or presumed genealogy, was the problem.
Church policy related only to priesthood, not to personal worth, but many Latter-day Saints shared with other Americans the general social prejudice that relegated blacks to secondary status. A study by Armand Mauss concluded that Mormons were prejudiced, but not more than other religious Americans. “Mormons . . . were no more likely to give anti-Negro responses than were the Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Lutherans . . . or Baptists,” although their belief system could provide an easy rationalization for prejudice.1
African-Americans in small numbers had been members of the Church from its days in Nauvoo. At least two black men, Walker Lewis, an elder, and Elijah Abel, a seventy, were ordained to the priesthood during Joseph Smith’s lifetime.2 Lewis was ordained by Apostle William Smith, brother of the Prophet, in 1843 or 1844 in Lowell, Massachusetts, and continued his involvement in the Church until at least 1852, when he returned to Lowell after a visit to Utah. Elijah Abel continued his activity in the Church in Utah, even though ordination of other blacks ceased.3 By Spencer’s day, Church members who were aware of Abel generally believed his ordination did not accurately reflect true doctrine but was either a mistake, an exception, or the result of Joseph Smith’s still imperfect understanding. It was not thought impossible that a black man could be ordained, just that it was improper.4 Thus, when such ordination errors came to light, the men would be asked to suspend use of their priesthood.
By the twentieth century, the origin of the restriction had receded far enough into the past that it carried the sanctity of long-established tradition. Most Mormons felt satisfied that it had a scriptural basis, even though the cited passages were at best ambiguous. Spencer knew that the restriction did not come from explicit scriptures but rather from interpretations by various Church leaders. The reasoning, as often constructed, ran this way: If (as attributed to Joseph Smith and Brigham Young) God disapproved of blacks holding the priesthood, and if (in God’s justice) individuals are accountable only for their own shortcomings, the withholding of priesthood from blacks who have lived worthily in mortality must reflect some kind of failure on their part before they were born.5
Proposed Scriptural Basis
Looking for scriptural support, Church leaders found statements in the Bible and the Pearl of Great Price that allowed the conclusion that after the Flood the Pharaoh of Egypt was both black and cursed as to the priesthood, inviting the inference that Pharaoh was cursed as to the priesthood because he was black. The gaps in logic were bridged with supposition.
- God cursed Cain for killing Abel and placed a mark on him.
- Cain’s descendants were black. (The mark, therefore, is assumed to be blackness.)
- Blackness came upon the Canaanites. (They are assumed to be descendants of Cain.)
- Pharaoh, descended from Ham and his wife, Egyptus, had Canaanite blood. (Thus Cain’s bloodline survived the Flood.)
- Pharaoh, although blessed by Noah for righteousness, was cursed as pertaining to the priesthood. (Thus denial of priesthood is independent of righteousness in mortality and must derive from a premortal cause.)
- Some premortal spirits were noble and great (Abr. 3:22). (Thus some premortal spirits were less than noble and great. Without any injustice, these lesser spirits were sent to earth through the lineage of Cain to experience mortality, but without priesthood.6)
In the modern Church, these ambiguities and gaps in logic did not in themselves refute the traditional explanation of priesthood restriction, but they showed how tenuous the reasoning was.
For Brigham Young, the matter was uncomplicated. It was simply a matter of lineage, a hierarchy of races.7 So far as we know he did not ever rely on the notion of premortal misconduct as explanation. Indeed, the Pearl of Great Price, in which the teachings about premortal existence principally appear, was not published in the United States until 1878, a year after Brigham Young’s death, and not canonized until 1880.8 He saw the enslaved condition of blacks in the United States as proof that they were under a curse.9 His teaching—that the priesthood restriction on blacks could not be lifted until after the resurrection—came to be seen, in hindsight, as unwarranted.
In the twentieth century, doctrinal emphasis on blood and inheritance declined while emphasis on individual responsibility increased.10 A belief that God is just led to a belief that when God sent spirits to a lineage to which he denied the priesthood, it must have been for some shortcoming of those spirits in the premortal world. Men reasoned that if there were “noble and great” spirits before mortality (Abraham 3:22–26), there must also be spirits of all degrees of lesser quality. But if, in the long run, men and women of all races would be blessed in accordance with their deserts, race is seen to be essentially irrelevant, except perhaps as a test.11
Origins of the Policy
Historically, the earliest race issue for the Church concerned slavery (see Doctrine and Covenants 134:12). In Missouri, Mormons avoided challenging their slaveholding neighbors’ position that blacks were descendants of Cain, rightly held as slaves, even though the scriptural basis was fragmentary. Noah is said to have cursed his grandson Canaan that he would be “a servant of servants” (Gen. 9:25), but even in its strongest interpretation this merely predicts slavery, it does not justify it.
During the Nauvoo years, Joseph Smith announced his opposition to slavery and proposed emancipation by government purchase. This position did not necessarily repudiate the concept of a cursed lineage, but it did repudiate slavery as a justified consequence of lineage. He apparently held the widespread view of his time that blacks as a race had been degraded by slavery, but he also asserted that they could as individuals rise above others if given opportunity.12 Thirty-five years later, Zebedee Coltrin and Abraham O. Smoot implied that Joseph Smith originated the priesthood restriction,13 but it is clear that from 1836 on, Elijah Abel, a black man, served as an elder and then a seventy in Nauvoo, with Joseph’s full knowledge.
The first known direct statement by a Church President that blacks were denied the priesthood came from Brigham Young in February 1849 when he said of “the Africans”: “The curse remained upon them because Cain cut off the lives of Abel. . . . The Lord had cursed Cain’s seed with blackness and prohibited them the Priesthood.”14 In 1852, Wilford Woodruff reported that Brigham Young, speaking to the Utah territorial legislature, took personal responsibility for articulating the restriction: “Any man having one drop of the seed of Cane [sic] in him Cannot hold the priesthood & if no other Prophet ever spake it Before I will say it now in the name of Jesus Christ. I know it is true & they know it.”15
Thus Brigham Young consistently attributed priesthood denial to a man’s ancestry, not to color, appearance, or premortal delinquency, and he held that any Negroid ancestry, however remote, tainted and disqualified a man for priesthood.
By the early twentieth century, when Spencer Kimball came to adulthood, members widely accepted that Joseph Smith originated the restriction (even though there was no substantial evidence to that effect). Many concluded, therefore, that it was the will of God, not a policy subject to human change; that it was explained by conduct during the premortal existence; that it applied to those with the slightest degree of African ancestry; that blacks would be eligible to receive priesthood after everyone else had had a chance—presumably at the end of time; and that any ordination of a black man by mistake would result in denying him use of that priesthood.16
Implementation of Policy
Although the priesthood ban deeply disturbed many members of the Church, particularly as the civil rights movement heightened awareness about the historical horrors of racism, the issue remained abstract for most. So few blacks joined the Church that most white members never had to deal with the effects of the ban. Those blacks who did accept baptism implicitly accepted their restricted status. Having sought membership in the Church and believing in its prophetic leadership, they found it unseemly to challenge the Church’s settled practice. In the face of sometimes insensitive treatment by other members, faithful black members demonstrated amazing patience. In 1974 the First Presidency reiterated that black male members could attend elders quorum meetings in the same way that prospective elders could, and while it would be permissible for black members to hold leadership positions in the auxiliary organizations, preference should be given to calling them to teaching or clerical positions so as to avoid any misunderstanding.17
World War II and its aftermath began a cascade of changes that would continue in American society through the rest of the century. Black military units proved their competence and valor, and they expected to take advantage of postwar prosperity and the G.I. Bill. The decade of the 1950s was a period of great ferment that would lead to the next decade’s explosion of civil rights action, with both moral and legal challenges to segregation in the South and social inequality elsewhere. Thus, during Spencer’s apostleship, the issue of racism was never far from his mind.
In 1947, the First Presidency assigned Heber Meeks, president of the Southern States Mission, to explore the possibility of proselyting in Cuba. Meeks asked his knowledgeable LDS friend, sociologist Lowry Nelson of the University of Minnesota, about the mixed racial picture in Cuba and whether missionaries would be able to avoid conferring priesthood on men with some Negroid ancestry. Nelson sent his reply to both Meeks and to the First Presidency, expressing sharp dismay at the policy. The Presidency responded, “From the days of the Prophet Joseph even until now, it has been the doctrine of the Church, never questioned by any of the Church leaders, that the Negroes are not entitled to the full blessings of the Gospel.” Its explanation, they said, was to be found in the premortal existence.18 In 1952, Nelson, still unable to reconcile this Church policy with his understanding of the gospel, published an article critical of the policy in The Nation, drawing national attention.19
In 1949, George Albert Smith’s administration began sending out a consistent statement in response to inquiries. It followed the pattern set in earlier private correspondence by the First Presidency and by David O. McKay, who had been a counselor in the First Presidency since 1934: “It 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, to the effect that Negroes . . . are not entitled to the priesthood at the present time,”20 based on “some eternal law with which man is yet unfamiliar” and by which men’s place and condition of birth and rights to priesthood must be explained; accordingly, “the conduct of spirits in the premortal existence has some determining effect upon the conditions and circumstances under which these spirits take on mortality.”21 The statement went beyond the evidence both in claiming a “direct commandment” from the Lord and in saying that the doctrine came “from the days of [the Church’s] organization.”
When McKay became Church President in April 1951, he continued to respond to queries with this same statement.22 But behind the scenes, application of the policy was changing to some degree. In 1948, during the George Albert Smith administration, priesthood leaders in the Philippines were authorized by the First Presidency to ordain Negrito men to the priesthood. These were native men with black skin who had no known African ancestry.23 Descent from black Africans only—not skin color or other racial characteristics—became the disqualifying factor.24
In 1954, President McKay is said to have appointed a special committee of the Twelve to study the issue. They concluded that the priesthood ban had no clear basis in scripture but that Church members were not prepared for change.25
In 1954, in an administrative decision, President McKay discontinued the practice in South Africa of requiring converts to trace all lines of their ancestry out of Africa as a way of establishing they had no Negroid forebears.26 Four years later, in 1958, he authorized Church leaders to ordain Fijian men to the priesthood based on his understanding that, despite their blackness, they were not related to Africans.27 In 1965, that principle of assuming a male convert qualified to receive the priesthood unless there was evidence to the contrary was applied specifically in Brazil and soon afterward applied generally.28 Candidates were no longer required to provide pedigrees. This policy was an accommodation to Brazilian culture. While American missionaries had traditionally treated race as a matter of genealogy, Brazilians identified race with appearance. In some areas of Brazil, 80 percent of the population was thought to have at least some traces of Negro ancestry,29 but records often failed to provide evidence one way or the other. Consequently, as the Church grew, the native local leaders who took over from the missionaries were increasingly less concerned with genealogy. They resolved uncertainty about lineage when there was no strong Negroid appearance by ascertaining whether a patriarchal blessing designated the person to be “of Israel” or by obtaining a decision from the stake president or First Presidency, case by case.30 These techniques followed President McKay’s approach, evincing more concern that no eligible person be excluded than that no ineligible person be ordained.31
Prospects for Change
Most General Authorities tried to avoid public discussion of the topic.32 Hugh B. Brown, counselor to President McKay from 1961 to 1970, appears to have been the leader most open to change. He urged that the priesthood restriction could be dropped as a matter of Church administrative policy without requiring a specific revelation. He reasoned that if the restriction had not come by revelation,33 it could be vacated without revelation. But despite his strongly held views and powerful influence, President Brown’s position did not then prevail.34
President McKay sometimes said in private conversations that the restriction on priesthood was not a doctrine but was a policy and subject to change.35 Although one might assume that this “policy rather than doctrine” distinction would make change easy, President McKay himself apparently meant only that the rule or practice was not established by direct revelation. He did not mean that change could come by the simple administrative decision of Church leaders. He maintained the position that the long-established policy was inspired and that change would require divine intervention.36 President McKay desired and sought such revelation, but he did not receive it. He told Elder Marion D. Hanks that “he had pleaded and pleaded with the Lord but had not had the answer he sought.”37 Leonard Arrington reported a statement by Elder Adam S. Bennion in 1954 that President McKay had prayed for change “without result and finally concluded the time was not yet ripe.”38
Even so, with the concurrence and encouragement of his counselors, President McKay took several important steps toward establishing missionary work in black Africa and made more liberal the interpretation and application of the priesthood policy.39 In individual cases of genuine uncertainty, he believed in erring on the side of compassion. However, he held consistently to the policy that Negroid ancestry, once established, was disqualifying.
Interest in the Church by Black Africans
The first LDS missionaries in South Africa arrived in 1853 and proselyted largely among the British settlers, although a few blacks were baptized.40 The mission closed in 1865 and reopened in 1903 after the Boer War and again concentrated on teaching white settlers.41 While in South Africa there was a Church presence but very little interest among blacks, Ghana and Nigeria had no Church organization but produced a stream of letters begging for missionaries to come and teach large numbers of blacks already converted to the Restoration message.
In 1960, Glen G. Fisher, newly released president of the South African Mission, stopped in Nigeria to visit groups that were using the Church’s name. He reported to the First Presidency that their faith was genuine. He urged sending missionaries to baptize believers and to organize branches.42 LaMar Williams, who as secretary to the Church Missionary Committee answered letters that came from Africa, was sent to Nigeria in 1961. He was met at the airport by ten pastors he had been corresponding with and discovered that they were unaware of one another. Williams returned with the names of fifteen thousand unbaptized converts who were waiting for the Church to come to them.43 No further action was taken until Christmas 1962, when newly ordained Apostle N. Eldon Tanner spent two weeks in the Lagos area, visiting three groups using the Church’s name, one of which claimed four thousand baptized adherents. When he reminded them that they did not have authority to baptize, their leader said he understood that, but he wanted the people to feel they belonged to the Church while they waited for the proper authority. Elder Tanner reported “cautious optimism” to the First Presidency.44
Despite their misgivings about proselyting in an area where the lack of priesthood leadership would create a serious problem, the First Presidency felt keenly that they could not deny the Restoration message to those openly yearning for it. In early 1963, President McKay called LaMar and Nyal B. Williams and four other couples to serve missions in Nigeria. He set Williams apart as presiding elder of Nigeria with tentative plans to establish Sunday Schools headed by Nigerians but supervised by white missionaries who would teach and administer ordinances. They hoped eventually to set up schools and medical facilities.45 The plan, however, foundered when a March 1963 editorial in the newspaper Nigerian Outlook condemned the Church as racist and the Nigerian government denied visas to the missionaries.46
Williams visited Nigeria in 1964 and 1965 to negotiate for visas, but during the second trip, a telegram recalled him to meet with the First Presidency. They informed him that they did not know why, but they felt it right to discontinue the effort for the present.47 Spencer Kimball, then serving on the Missionary Executive Committee, asked Williams to “keep in touch” with the believers.48 Almost immediately, in January 1966, the Biafran War broke out. For the next five years, civil strife kept Nigeria in turmoil. Even after the war ended, political instability continued until a peaceful military coup in July 1975.49
Developments in Ghana closely paralleled those in Nigeria. In fact, the International Mission received more letters from Ghana than from any other country without active missionary proselyting.
Civil Rights Movement
As awareness of the priesthood policy grew, many white potential investigators found the priesthood ban offensive and refused to listen to the missionaries. The escalation of the civil rights movement during the 1960s sensitized Americans to racial bigotry, and they found it difficult to see the Church’s prohibition on black ordination as anything else.
Protest against the Church policy took many forms—rejection of missionaries, public demonstrations, even sabotage. In 1962, a small bomb damaged the east doors of the Salt Lake Temple and blew out some windows.50 While no one claimed responsibility, many people assumed it was motivated by opposition to the priesthood policy. The Utah chapter of NAACP threatened to picket October general conference in 1963 but dropped the plan when President Hugh B. Brown indicated in a meeting with NAACP leaders that he would read a statement supporting full civil rights.51
Congress adopted the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The march from Selma, Alabama, to the state capitol occurred in 1965, and that same year three hundred protesters paraded to the Church Office Building demanding that the Church endorse a civil rights bill then languishing in the Utah legislature. The Church did not make a public statement, but the legislation passed.52
Between 1968 and 1970 at least a dozen demonstrations or violent acts occurred when BYU athletic teams played other schools. Opposing players refused to participate or wore black armbands. One spectator threw acid, and another threw a Molotov cocktail that failed to ignite. Stanford severed athletic relations with BYU.53
Changing Perceptions of the Policy in the Church
The possibility for changing the policy increased subtly as scholarly efforts to trace the restriction to its source showed no certain beginnings and shaky reasoning in support of the practice. A 1967 article by Armand L. Mauss pointed out the speculative nature of the explanations based on premortal conduct and the “curse of Cain.” He concluded that the policy rested on tradition, not on scriptural mandate.54
A 1970 book by University of Utah student Steven Taggart proposed that the policy began in Missouri in the 1830s as an expedient for dealing with the slavery question among slaveholders.55 Lester E. Bush responded in 1973 with an exhaustive monograph-length study, concluding that the earliest clear evidence of priesthood denial dates only to Brigham Young.56
As the doctrinal foundations of the policy grew increasingly problematic, members focused on its social aspects. Armand Mauss, Eugene England, and Elder Marion D. Hanks, among others, hypothesized that change in the policy perhaps depended on LDS members’ willingness to accept black men and women in true fellowship.57 Lowell Bennion, charismatic Institute of Religion teacher at the University of Utah, felt that members could properly pray for change. In 1963, he pointed out: “God’s revelations . . . depend upon our minds, our eagerness, upon our search, upon our questions, upon our moral disturbances, if you will, upon our needs. . . . It may be that the Lord can’t get through to us sometimes on things. Therefore we ought to be thinking and searching and praying even over this Negro problem.”58 This position accepted that God allows people—even Church leaders—to make mistakes.
But others thought it presumptuous for members to do anything but wait patiently and faithfully defend the Church’s position. Spencer Kimball, to whom loyalty was an article of faith, placed himself in this latter group. In two letters to his son Ed in 1963, he explained: “These smart members who would force the issue, and there are many of them, cheapen the issue and certainly bring into contempt the sacred principle of revelation and divine authority.” Continuing the dialogue a few days later, he added:
The conferring of priesthood, and declining to give the priesthood is not a matter of my choice nor of President McKay’s. It is the Lord’s program. . . . When the Lord is ready to relax the restriction, it will come whether there is pressure or not. This is my faith. Until then, I shall try to fight on. . . . I have always prided myself on being about as unprejudiced as to race as any man. I think my work with the minorities would prove that, but I am so completely convinced that the prophets know what they are doing and the Lord knows what he is doing, that I am willing to rest it there.59
Church leaders felt themselves under attack, unable to change a policy that left many of them deeply uncomfortable. In January 1970, after several years of physical incapacity, President McKay died. During these last years, Presidents Brown and Tanner discussed with University of Utah philosophy professor Sterling McMurrin, who was actively associated with the NAACP, whether the First Presidency should make another statement supporting civil rights for blacks that would go further than the 1963 statement. President Brown was dubious, believing that a few of the Brethren would resist another statement.60 Brown also reportedly urged the Twelve to make an administrative decision to change the priesthood policy but was thwarted.61 As an Apostle, Spencer was undoubtedly involved in discussions of these issues, but his journal makes no reference to them. He would have been aware of their divisiveness, leading him to strive hard for unity when the question came up during his presidency.
Elder Lee, convinced that the ban was doctrinally fixed and wishing to reaffirm the traditional Church position, persuaded Presidents Brown and Tanner to send a letter to that effect on December 15, 1969, to bishops and stake presidents.62 After news of the in-house statement became widely known, the full First Presidency and Twelve jointly signed the statement and released it publicly on January 10, 1970, just a week before President McKay’s death. Like the 1949 statement, it attributed the policy to Joseph Smith and explained that the reason for the exclusion “antedates man’s mortal existence.” Both statements also asserted that the ban would someday be terminated. But while the 1949 statement said that blacks would receive the priesthood “when all the rest of the children [of God] have received their blessings in the holy priesthood,” the 1969 statement omitted this idea and pointed out that the Church is founded in “the principle of continuous revelation” that could change the policy. The 1949 statement referred to a “curse on the seed of Cain,” while the 1969 statement said only that the restriction was “for reasons which we believe are known to God, but which He has not made fully known to man.” In commenting on the statement, President Brown was quoted in the Salt Lake Tribune as saying that the policy “will change in the not too distant future.”63
Despite the now-official, public “we don’t know” position, most leaders still privately stood by the traditional twentieth-century explanation that a spirit’s premortal conduct justified priesthood restriction in mortality.64 Joseph Fielding Smith, who succeeded President McKay, was among those most consistently supporting the traditional views, as was Harold B. Lee, who became his First Counselor.
In June 1971, three black Mormons in Salt Lake City, Ruffin Bridgeforth, Darius Gray, and Eugene Orr, petitioned the Church for help in keeping and reactivating the relatively small number of black members in the city. A committee of three Apostles, Elders Gordon B. Hinckley, Thomas S. Monson, and Boyd K. Packer, met with them a number of times. They suggested organizing an auxiliary unit, assigned to the Salt Lake Liberty Stake.65 In October, Bridgeforth, a member for eighteen years, was set apart as the president of the Genesis Group, with Gray and Orr as his counselors. Genesis members attended sacrament meeting in their geographical wards but met together monthly to hear speakers and bear testimony and weekly for Relief Society, Primary, and youth meetings. Genesis served important social and religious functions, providing opportunities to serve and lead that were otherwise unavailable.66
Spencer and Camilla happily accepted an invitation to attend a Genesis picnic, visiting with the adults and holding little children on their laps.67 While Spencer was President of the Twelve, he personally took Christmas fruit baskets to the homes of the Genesis presidency.68
When Harold B. Lee succeeded Joseph Fielding Smith in July 1972, in his first press conference he took the position on the priesthood ban articulated in the 1969 statement he had drafted: “For those who don’t believe in modern revelation there is no adequate explanation. Those who do understand revelation stand by and wait until the Lord speaks.”69 A few months later at another media interview, he gave a more positive response: “It’s only a matter of time before the black achieves full status in the Church. We must believe in the justice of God. The black will achieve full status, we’re just waiting for that time.” He proposed no time schedule and reiterated that change would have to come through revelation.70
The issue unquestionably occupied President Lee’s mind.71 For example, he asked Marion D. Hanks to describe what answer he gave as president of the Temple Square Mission and elsewhere when asked about the Church policy on race and priesthood.72 Like the Presidents before him, President Lee responded to specific issues as they arose. He approved a general policy that black children could be sealed to nonblack adoptive parents. President McKay had previously approved such sealings on an individual basis.73
Doctrine aside, practical problems persisted—how to respond to letters arriving from Nigeria and Ghana year after year pleading for missionaries, how to deal with the widespread charge of racial bigotry, and how to respond to investigators.
In December 1973, President Lee died unexpectedly. The thorny issue of black restriction passed on to his successor, Spencer W. Kimball.
Spiritual Premonitions of Others
After the revelation, a number of people identified unusual experiences that in retrospect signaled the change to come. In a 1973 patriarchal blessing, Oscar L. McFarland, patriarch of the stake in Covina, California, promised Theadore Britton, a black Sunday School superintendent, that if he remained faithful he would one day enjoy all the blessings of the priesthood. It was clear from context that by “one day” he meant in mortality. Frightened by what he had said, the patriarch called his stake president, who told him, “Send me a copy. I’ll send it on to President Kimball.” The blessing transcript later came back with a red question mark by the passage in question but no annotation. The cover note from President Kimball said only, “A fine blessing.”74
A number of other blessings received by black male members indicated that they would have opportunities not presently available to them—promises that included priesthood, missions, or temple blessings. People generally accepted these promises as things that would occur in the next life or in the Millennium, not a prophecy of imminent change.75
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.76
Black college student Mary Frances Sturlaugson, shortly after her baptism in 1975, received a blessing from a seminary teacher in South Dakota that asserted she would serve a mission. He said afterward he didn’t know how it would happen. When she received her patriarchal blessing in 1977, patriarch Rodney Kimball (the son of Spencer’s cousin), said, “I feel strongly impressed to tell you that if there is something you greatly desire that is not said at this time in this blessing, write it on the back of your blessing and it will become binding, depending on your faithfulness.” She wrote down that she wanted to serve a mission. Another blessing told her, “The desire of your heart will be granted unto you.”77 She became the first black woman missionary after the revelation.
In 1976, Bishop Fujio Abe, a high councilor in Greensboro North Carolina Stake, heard a knock late one evening. He found black member Joseph Freeman and his wife, Isapella, standing on his doorstep, carrying their one-year-old son, Alexander, who had a high fever that would not respond to medicine. While Brother Freeman held the child, Bishop Abe administered a blessing. Halfway through he felt impressed to say that the child would one day hold the priesthood and serve a mission for the Church. Both men felt the fever leave the child as the blessing was pronounced. His temperature dropped to normal.
The bishop had scarcely said, “Amen,” before Sister Freeman asked, “Do you realize what you just said?”
“Yes,” Brother Abe replied, “I do. Those were not my words. I suggest that it be something private and sacred, between us. Others would not understand.”78
In the spring of 1978, shortly before the revelation announcement, F. Briton McConkie was in Manila by assignment giving patriarchal blessings. To a woman of African descent, he promised she would receive the blessings of the temple. To Alonzo Harris, a black man, he promised that he would receive the priesthood and the blessings of the temple in his lifetime. Upon his return to Utah, Briton told his brother Elder Bruce R. McConkie about the unusual blessings, and Bruce responded noncommittally, “I am glad to know you have given those blessings.”
In only a few days, these otherwise mystifying events would be seen as part of a foreshadowing.
In his first press conference, held immediately after his ordination, President Kimball faced a number of predictable questions. In response to the restriction on priesthood for blacks, he answered straightforwardly:
[I have given it] a great deal of thought, a great deal of prayer. The day might come when they would be given the priesthood, but that day has not come yet. Should the day come it will be a matter of revelation. Before changing any important policy, it has to be through a revelation from the Lord. But we believe in revelation. We believe there are yet many more things to be revealed from the Lord. . . . We are open to the Father on every suggestion that he gives us, to every direction he gives us, to every revelation of desire for change.79
At the time, no one saw this statement as a harbinger of change; similar statements had been made before and been seen as a kind of hedge: Change could come, but it would take a miracle, so don’t count on it.
Less than four months later, when an interviewer for a national telecast asked, “Do you anticipate a change in the racial policy?” President Kimball gave a similar answer: “No, I do not anticipate it. If it should be done the Lord will reveal it and we believe in revelation. We believe that the leader of the Church is entitled to that revelation. And that it would come if it is necessary and if it is proper.”80
It is difficult to know President Kimball’s inner feelings as he made these statements, whether he was putting the best face on a policy he supported or expressing a deepening hope and desire that the time for change had come. While he was sensitive to the concerns and needs of minorities and while he showed no personal denigration of blacks, he also gave no encouragement to others who pressed for change. “I decided long ago,” he said, “that I would be loyal to the Brethren.”81 He reacted especially negatively to militant protests against the Church and coercive methods, particularly when those protesting had themselves no interest in becoming priesthood holders. Spencer believed that external pressures made revelation even less likely to come.82
During his life in Arizona, Spencer had few personal contacts with blacks. Inevitably, he absorbed general social prejudices against blacks, but they were vague, based upon assumptions and other people’s attitudes, not on his own experience, because there were very few blacks in his community.83 Of his youth he said, “I had grown up with the belief that Negroes should not have the priesthood.”84 As an adult in Arizona, he showed no personal bias toward the Mexicans and Native Americans with whom he dealt. In fact, his twenty-five years as an Apostle working closely with North and South American native peoples gave Spencer a degree of comfort with ethnic and racial diversity that some other Church leaders lacked.85
His response to individuals was generous and compassionate. As stake president in Arizona, he approved the use of the Lebanon Ward chapel for graduation ceremonies of a black school, despite some member opposition.86 In 1959, he recorded in his journal meeting a member in Brazil who had a remote Negro ancestor, giving him about 5 percent Negroid heritage. “My heart wanted to burst for him.”87 He sympathized with and admired Monroe Fleming, who worked at the Hotel Utah for many years and had suffered with patience and dignity the scorn of other blacks for his faithfulness to the Church.88
In 1964, when Spencer visited the Church exhibit at the New York World’s Fair, he noted with regret the absence of black faces in the murals and wondered whether black members should have been included as guides at the exhibit.89 That same year as Spencer toured the South American missions, Fernandez, an eighteen-year-old church building missionary in Rivera, Uruguay, embraced him and smiled radiantly. “I felt impressed to promise him blessings beyond his fondest imagination if he remained totally true to the Cause,” Spencer wrote in his journal. The young man was “working against great odds but still sweet and unembittered.”90
Spencer’s personal position toward blacks was the uneasy and ultimately unsatisfactory one of “separate but equal.” Even though he was in favor of equality, he strongly opposed integration because the partners in a mixed marriage could not be sealed in the temple and their children would be similarly limited. In contrast, while advising prospective couples about other interracial marriages (most often it was of a Native American with a Caucasian), he frankly pointed out the social and psychological risks for the couple and their children but reassured them that the decision was personal and involved no theological issues.91
On occasion, though, Spencer did specifically raise the question about the priesthood ban. In 1967, when he reorganized a stake presidency in Salt Lake City, he called Arvil Milne as counselor to the new stake president. Brother Milne, expecting questions about his worthiness, was startled when Spencer’s first substantive question was, “Brother Milne, what do you think about black people receiving the priesthood?”
Milne reflected for a moment and then responded: “I suppose when the Lord decides it is time he’ll let the prophet know. Until then they’ll have to get along without it.”
Elder Kimball said, “Thank you.” That ended the curious interview.92
In April 1969, while interviewing James Polve for employment as a professor of engineering at BYU, Spencer asked him only one question, “What do you think about whether the Negroes should receive the priesthood?” Surprised, Polve assumed the question was a test of his orthodoxy and knowledge of Church teachings. He responded with a traditional answer. The interview so mystified him that he did not dare write it in his journal.93 Perhaps such questions were intended only to probe loyalty; more likely they reflected Spencer’s personal concerns.94
The Presidential Years before 1978
Spencer always responded to questions about policy and doctrine with traditional, orthodox explanations, even within his family. But it is clear that inwardly he struggled with the priesthood issue and wished the Lord would permit a change. He felt compassion toward those excluded and perhaps guilt that faithful men were banned from a responsibility and blessing he himself prized.
From his statements to the press at the time he became president, few expected any such revelation.95 Probably he himself did not. But one huge factor had changed: the ultimate responsibility for the policy fell to him. His duty was no longer that of the loyal supporter. He had the direct, personal responsibility to ascertain the Lord’s will by study, faith, and prayer, and he was determined not to be motivated by earthly pressures. He had a hundred other things that demanded his immediate attention, but the matter of priesthood continued to hang heavy in the air.96
Spencer maintained a notebook full of correspondence and clippings about blacks and priesthood. The range and extent of the notebook’s content show that the matter concerned him greatly. But the latest item is dated about 1975, well before the 1978 revelation. Perhaps his accelerating presidential schedule did not allow him to maintain the notebook, or perhaps he turned more to internal seeking.
By the time Spencer became President, external pressures to change the priesthood policy had slackened greatly, but they did not disappear.97 In 1974, the NAACP sued the Boy Scouts of America over the policy in LDS Church-sponsored Boy Scout troops of having deacons quorum presidents serve also as senior patrol leaders. The Church quickly changed the policy.
In April 1976, Douglas A. Wallace, an elder living in Vancouver, Washington, took it upon himself to baptize and ordain a black man in defiance of Church policy. He was soon after excommunicated. The publicity surrounding the incident brought hidden divisions in the Genesis Group to the fore. Some members openly criticized Church leaders for failing to revoke the priesthood restriction and drew up a petition. The document asked President Kimball to “modify previous statements on interracial marriage and make a firm commitment” about when black men could be ordained.98 A significant minority of the group signed. People on both sides—both those pressing for change and those who abhorred the contention—withdrew from Genesis. The leaders persisted faithfully despite the difficulty. After the split, Genesis slowly regained strength.99
Wallace continued his protest by storming down the Tabernacle aisle with two associates at the April 1976 general conference, yelling, “Make way for the Lord! Don’t touch the Lord!” Ushers swiftly escorted him and two companions from the Tabernacle. Outside he announced to news representatives that he was trying to put President Kimball “on trial.”100 Since President Kimball had reason to believe that Wallace intended to confront him again, the Church obtained a temporary restraining order to prevent Wallace from disrupting subsequent conferences.101 Although Wallace obeyed the restraining order keeping him out of the Tabernacle, he held a news conference at Temple Square criticizing the Church for its racial restriction.102
When in 1975 President Kimball announced the construction of a temple in São Paulo, Brazil, there was concern about how to determine who, in such a racially mixed country, would be eligible to enter the completed temple. He later said that at the time he “was not thinking in terms of making an adjustment.” He thought, rather, that the Church would simply have to inquire even more carefully into the racial background of members seeking recommends.103
In about 1976, a lawsuit was initiated in Costa Rica by a black lawyer seeking to disenfranchise the Church in that country for violating laws prohibiting racial discrimination in its proselyting. The man was offended by the missionaries’ use of a “genealogical survey” as a technique for ascertaining whether contacts had Negroid ancestry. President Kimball sent attorney F. Burton Howard, a future member of the First Quorum of the Seventy, to deal with the situation. When Howard returned to report a successful conclusion to the lawsuit, Spencer confided “his concern for giving the priesthood to all men and said that he had been praying about it for fifteen years without an answer, . . . but I am going to keep praying about it.”104
As President, Spencer consistently sought to grant the priesthood when circumstances were unclear. The family of John L. Pea, for example, came to October general conference in 1976 to be sealed in the temple after the First Presidency rescinded an earlier denial. Spencer recorded:
Forty-three years ago Brother Pea was judged by the mission president to have some possible Negro lineage. As a result he and 4 sons never had the Priesthood and none have been to the temple. Recently the Genealogical Society investigated the circumstances and the First Presidency then reviewed the facts and determined that there was no justification for withholding the Priesthood from Brother Pea and authorized the bishop and stake president to ordain the brethren and give approval for temple recommends for those worthy.
Thirty members of the family came for conference and to be sealed. The whole group met with the First Presidency and sang for them.105
President Kimball, in a 1971 devotional address given at BYU, spoke of the Apostle Peter and specified that Peter “announced a major policy change in the church whereby gentiles might be accepted.” In hindsight, he could be seen as reminding the Church that change can come by revelation.106
In the fall of 1977, President Kimball, visiting with LDS economist Jack Carlson, asked, “What do you think would happen if we changed the policy? Give me a scenario.” President Kimball expressed his own concerns about internal dissent, particularly from members in the American South or even from the Quorum of the Twelve.107
Setting the Stage
The days leading up to June 1978 offer a classic illustration of the pattern leading to much of revelation—an urgent question, an intense consideration, a prayerfully formulated tentative answer, and a spiritual confirmation.108
Many factors set the stage for change, although it is impossible to determine how much each contributed:
- Requests for missionaries continued to come from individuals and groups in Africa, particularly Nigeria and Ghana. How could the Church deny gospel teaching to sincere seekers? And how would they function without priesthood?
- The American conscience was awakening to the centuries of injustice against blacks; the balance had tipped decisively against racism and toward egalitarianism, preparing whites to accept blacks as both legal and social equals. This consciousness did not happen at once, nor did it reach everyone, but it prepared white Mormons to welcome blacks as full participants.
- This new ethos also created social pressure. Many Americans scorned Mormons as bigots, and the perception may have affected missionary efforts.
- The Church’s commitment to missionary work—always high—had achieved unprecedented heights under President Kimball’s vision of missionary work sweeping the earth. Both leaders and members continually confronted the logical consequence: missionary efforts had to include black Africa.
- Study by General Authorities and independent scholars had weakened the traditional idea that Joseph Smith taught priesthood exclusion and cast a shadow on the policy’s purported scriptural justifications.109
- The Church’s surging growth in Brazil and the temple there, rapidly moving toward completion, created an insoluble dilemma. In such a racially mixed society, many people had remote Negroid ancestry but did not know it. Application of the policy would be accompanied by the near certainty of error.
- And finally, the person responsible for directing the Church had changed. President Hinckley said, “Here was a little man, filled with love, able to reach out to people. . . . He was not the first to worry about the priesthood question, but he had the compassion to pursue it and a boldness that allowed him to act, to get the revelation.”110
As a follower, Spencer had proved loyal and conservative. He did not come to leadership intending to be a reformer, but he was not afraid of change. His only desire was to push the work of the Church forward. If doing so required changes, he stood prepared to make them.
President Kimball felt that his predecessors had sought the Lord’s will concerning the priesthood policy, and for whatever reason “the time had not come.”111 But Spencer had to ask anew. He wanted urgently “to find out firsthand what the Lord thought about it.” It was not enough just to wait until the Lord saw fit to take the initiative: the scripture admonished him to ask and to knock if he wanted to know for himself. He prayed, trying not to prejudge the answer: Should we maintain the long-standing policy, or has the time come for the change? He received no immediate answer to his prayers.112
In May 1975, President Kimball referred to his counselors various statements by early Church leaders about blacks and the priesthood and asked for their reactions.113 Wary of ways in which the question had been divisive during the McKay administration, he asked the Apostles to join him as colleagues in extended study and supplication.114 Francis M. Gibbons, secretary to the First Presidency, observed special focus on the issue in the year before the revelation.115 Ten years after the revelation, Dallin H. Oaks, president of BYU in 1978, recalled this time of inquiry: “[President Kimball] asked me what I thought were the reasons. He talked to dozens of people, maybe hundreds of people . . . about why, why do we have this.”116
Years earlier, talking about revelation in general, Spencer had written in a letter to his son:
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.117
In June 1977, Spencer invited at least three General Authorities to give him memos on the implications of the subject.118 Elder McConkie wrote a long memorandum concluding that there was no scriptural barrier to a change in policy that would give priesthood to black men.119 Considering Elder McConkie’s traditional approach to the topic during the Lee administration, this conclusion explains why, according to Elder Packer, “President Kimball spoke in public of his gratitude to Elder McConkie for some special support he received in the days leading up to the revelation on the priesthood.”120 Although minutes of quorum meetings are not available and participants have not commented in detail, the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve discussed the issue repeatedly, at length, and over a period of months.121
Elder James E. Faust, head of the International Mission, which included nearly all of Africa, conferred with President Kimball a number of times in early 1978 about the priesthood issue.122 At one meeting, Elder Faust displayed a stack of letters received from Africa during just the previous month. Asked to read a sample, Elder Faust chose a letter from a boy whose “greatest hope was to one day sit in the Salt Lake Tabernacle and there hear the Lord’s prophets speak.”123
During the months leading up to June 1978, President Kimball spoke with the Twelve repeatedly about the question, asking them to speak freely.124 He invited associates who had not expressed themselves in the group setting to talk with him in private.125 He seemed so intent on solving the problem that others worried about him. A neighbor of the Kimballs, Richard Vernon, had noticed that Spencer seemed somewhat withdrawn. Normally relaxed and comfortable with friends in his ward, Spencer responded to one inquiry that he was not feeling well and changed the topic. Many in the ward had noticed the difference and felt concerned. Many also noticed that Camilla was anxious and worried about Spencer. Elder Packer, concerned at President Kimball’s inability to let the matter rest, said, “Why don’t you forget this?” Then Elder Packer answered his own question, “Because you can’t. The Lord won’t let you.”126
Spencer later described:
Day after day, and especially on Saturdays and Sundays when there were no organizations [sessions] in the temple, I went there when I could be alone.
I was very humble . . . I was searching for this . . . I wanted to be sure. . . .
I had a great deal to fight . . . myself, largely, because I had grown up with this thought that Negroes should not have the priesthood and I was prepared to go all the rest of my life until my death and fight for it and defend it as it was.127
On returning from the airport in February 1978 after one of his trips, Spencer asked the driver to let him off at the temple and sent Camilla home alone. “I want to go to the temple for a while,” he said. “I’ll get a way home.”128 Some days he went more than once, often alone.129 Sometimes he changed into temple clothing; he always took off his shoes. He obtained a key that gave him access to the temple night or day without having to involve anyone else. Few knew, except the security men who watched over him. One of them mentioned it to President Kimball’s neighbor, who told Camilla. So she knew that much, but she had no idea what problem so occupied Spencer. She worried that one of the Brethren might be involved in serious transgression. Spencer gently suggested to the security supervisor that his men should be careful about what they disclosed, even to his wife.130
Camilla called Arthur Haycock to ask what was making Spencer so distressed and concerned. The only answer Arthur felt free to give was that something was troubling the President but everything would be all right.131
On March 9, 1978, as the First Presidency and Twelve met in the temple, the Apostles unanimously expressed their feeling that if the policy were to change, any change must be based on revelation received and announced by the prophet. President Kimball then urged a concerted effort from all of them to learn the will of the Lord. He suggested they engage in concerted individual fasting and prayer.132
Over time, through the many days in the temple and through the sleepless hours of the night, praying and turning over in his mind all the consequences, perplexities, and criticisms that a decision to extend priesthood would involve, Spencer gradually found “all those complications and concerns dwindling in significance.” They did not disappear but seemed to decline in importance. In spite of his preconceptions and his allegiance to the past, a swelling certainty grew that a change in policy was what the Lord wanted.133 “There grew slowly a deep, abiding impression to go forward with the change.”134
This answer had become clear in Spencer’s mind as early as late March, but he felt unity within the leadership was important, and he continued to discuss the matter with others. He sensed resistance from some, which he fully understood. He did not push, lobby, pressure, or use his office to seek compliance. Instead, he increased his visits to the temple, imploring the Lord to make his will known, not only to him but also to the Twelve, to these good men who all their lives had quoted other Presidents of the Church that it was not yet time. In a sense, the past prophets of the Church stood arrayed against this decision. The wisdom of the dead often seems loftier than the word of an imperfect living spokesman. Spencer wanted more than anything to have his fellow servants share with him a witness of the Lord’s will. Camilla noted that in their prayers together, where he had always asked for “inspiration” or “guidance,” he began to plead for “revelation.” She also noticed that he read the scriptures even more intently than usual during that spring.135
On March 23, Spencer reported to his counselors that he had spent much of the night in reflection and his impression then was to lift the restriction on blacks. His counselors said they were prepared to sustain him if that were his decision. They went on to discuss the impact of such a change in policy on the members and decided there was no need for prompt action; they would discuss it again with the Twelve before a final decision.136
Francis Gibbons, secretary to the First Presidency, had the impression that President Kimball had already come to know God’s will and was now struggling with how to resolve the matter in a way that the entire leadership would stand behind.137
On April 20, President Kimball asked the Twelve to join the Presidency in praying that God would give them an answer. Thereafter he talked with the Twelve individually and continued to spend many hours alone in prayer and meditation in the Holy of Holies, often after hours when the temple was still.138 He described the burden of his prayers in an extemporaneous talk to missionaries in South Africa several months later:
I remember very vividly the day after day that I walked over to the temple and ascended up to the fourth floor where we have our solemn assemblies, where we have our meetings of the Twelve and the Presidency. And after everybody had gone out of the temple, I knelt and prayed. And I prayed with such a fervency, I tell you! I knew that something was before us that was extremely important to many of the children of God. And I knew that we could receive the revelations of the Lord only by being worthy and ready for them and ready to accept them and to put them into place. Day after day I went and with great solemnity and seriousness, alone in the upper rooms of the Temple, and there I offered my soul and offered our efforts to go forward with the program139 and we wanted to do what he wanted. As we talked about it to him, we said, “Lord, we want only what is right. We’re not making any plans to be spectacularly moving. We want only the thing that thou dost want and we want it when you want it and not until.”140
On one occasion during this time, a temple administrator brought an organ tuner into the room where the Presidency and Twelve met. They interrupted President Kimball at prayer and withdrew, flustered.141 Another time Spencer found one of the temple workers standing guard outside the room to protect him from interruption. Spencer thanked him for his vigil but protested that it was unnecessary.142
At the end of the joint meeting of the Presidency and Twelve on May 4, when the priesthood policy was discussed, LeGrand Richards asked permission to make a statement. He then reported:
I saw during the meeting a man seated in a chair above the organ, bearded and dressed in white, having the appearance of Wilford Woodruff. . . . I am not a visionary man. . . . This was not imagination. . . . It might be that I was privileged to see him because I am the only one here who had seen President Woodruff in person.143
Late on Saturday, May 6, 1978, a friend of President Kimball, Bryan Espenschied, met him walking alone as they both left the temple. Brother Espenschied had the impression that Spencer was greatly worried or distressed. Later Spencer explained that he had on that occasion been in the temple, praying about the question of priesthood.144 Spencer’s counselors shared his anxieties. President Tanner’s family saw him during this time seeming “greatly concerned, as though he carried the burdens of the world.”145
Spencer continued to receive many letters from Church members concerning the issue. Some writers criticized and demanded; others expressed faith and hope. A letter dated May 19 from Chase Peterson, then a Harvard University administrator and soon to be president of the University of Utah, urged a “present opportunity,” while external pressures had slackened, to open the priesthood to black men. After thoughtful expression of this view, he concluded:
Could it be that the Lord has been both preparing us to accept the black man into full Priesthood fellowship and preparing the black man for Priesthood responsibility? . . . [Perhaps the Lord] is waiting for us to be ready, and if we fail to demonstrate our readiness, there may not be a [right] time again [soon].146
A few days later Spencer replied, “I thank you very much for your delightful letter and for the suggestions you have offered. Please accept my sincere thanks and best wishes.”147
On May 25, Mark E. Petersen called President Kimball’s attention to an article that proposed the priesthood policy had begun with Brigham Young, not Joseph Smith, and he suggested that the President might wish to consider this factor.148
On May 30, Spencer read his counselors a tentative statement in longhand removing racial restrictions on priesthood and said he had a “good, warm feeling” about it.149 They reviewed past statements and decided to ask G. Homer Durham, a Seventy supervising the Historical Department, to research the matter further.150 They also concluded to alter the pattern of their next Thursday morning meeting with the Twelve by canceling the traditional luncheon in the temple and asking the council members to continue their fasting.151
Confirmation of Revelation
On Thursday, June 1, Spencer left home early, as usual, so engrossed that he left his briefcase behind and had to send back for it. His journal for the day records, with striking blandness:
After meeting with my counselors for an hour this morning from eight until nine o’clock, we went over to the temple and met with all of the General Authorities in the monthly meeting we hold together [on the first Thursday].
Returned to the office for a few minutes and then went over to Temple Square for the dedication services of the new Visitors Center South, which was scheduled to commence at 3:00 p.m.
The services lasted for about an hour, after which we returned to the office where I worked at my desk until six o’clock.
The day proved rather more significant than this entry suggests. On this first Thursday of the month, the First Presidency, Twelve, and Seventies met in their regularly scheduled monthly temple meeting at 9:00 a.m., fasting. There they bore testimony, partook of the sacrament, and participated in a prayer circle.152 The meeting lasted the usual three and a half hours and was not notably different from other such meetings until the conclusion, when President Kimball asked the Twelve to remain. Two had already left the room to change from their temple clothing in preparation for the regular business meeting of the First Presidency and the Twelve that normally followed. Someone called them back. Elder Delbert L. Stapley lay ill in the hospital, and Elder Mark E. Petersen was in South America on assignment. Ten of the Twelve were present.
As was later recalled, President Kimball said:
Brethren, I have canceled lunch for today. Would you be willing to remain in the temple with us? I would like you to continue to fast with me. I have been going to the temple almost daily for many weeks now, sometimes for hours, entreating the Lord for a clear answer. I have not been determined in advance what the answer should be. And I will be satisfied with a simple Yes or No, but I want to know. Whatever the Lord’s decision is, I will defend it to the limits of my strength, even to death.153
He outlined to them the direction his thoughts had carried him—the fading of his reluctance, the disappearance of objections, the growing assurance he had received, the tentative decision he had reached, and his desire for a clear answer. Once more he asked the Twelve to speak, without concern for seniority. “Do you have anything to say?” Elder McConkie spoke in favor of the change, noting there was no scriptural impediment. President Tanner asked searching questions as Elder McConkie spoke. Then Elder Packer spoke at length, explaining his view that every worthy man should be allowed to hold the priesthood. He quoted scriptures (D&C 124:49; 56:4–5; 58:32) in support of the change.154 Eight of the ten volunteered their views, all favorable. President Kimball called on the other two, and they also spoke in favor. Discussion continued for two hours.155 Elder Packer said, a few weeks later, “One objection would have deterred him, would have made him put it off, so careful was he . . . that it had to be right.”156 The decision process bonded them in unity. They then sought divine confirmation.
President Kimball asked, “Do you mind if I lead you in prayer?” There were things he wanted to say to the Lord. He had reached a decision after great struggle, and he wanted the Lord’s confirmation, if it would come. They surrounded the altar in a prayer circle. President Kimball told the Lord at length that if extending the priesthood was not right, if the Lord did not want this change to come in the Church, he would fight the world’s opposition.157 Elder McConkie later recounted, “The Lord took over and President Kimball was inspired in his prayer, asking the right questions, and he asked for a manifestation.”158
During that prayer, those present felt something powerful, unifying, ineffable. Those who tried to describe it struggled to find words. Elder McConkie said:
[It was as though another day of Pentecost came.] On the day of Pentecost in the Old World it is recorded that cloven tongues of fire rested upon the people. They were trying to put into words what is impossible to express directly. There are no words to describe the sensation, but simultaneously the Twelve and the three members of the First Presidency had the Holy Ghost descend upon them and they knew that God had manifested his will. . . . I had had some remarkable spiritual experiences before, particularly in connection with my call as an apostle, but nothing of this magnitude.
All of the Brethren at once knew and felt in their souls what the answer to the importuning petition of President Kimball was. . . . Some of the Brethren were weeping. All were sober and somewhat overcome. When President Kimball stood up, several of the Brethren, in turn, threw their arms around him.159
Elder L. Tom Perry recalled: “While he was praying we had a marvelous experience. We had just a unity of feeling. The nearest I can describe it is that it was much like what has been recounted as happening at the dedication of the Kirtland Temple. I felt something like the rushing of wind. There was a feeling that came over the whole group. When President Kimball got up he was visibly relieved and overjoyed.”160
Elder Hinckley said soon afterward that the experience defied description: “It was marvelous, very personal, bringing with it great unity and strong conviction that this change was a revelation from God.”161 Ten years later he said:
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. . . . 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. . . .
There was not the sound “as of a rushing mighty wind,” there were not “cloven tongues like as of fire” as there had been on the Day of Pentecost. . . .
. . . But the voice of the Spirit whispered with certainty into our minds and our very souls.
It was for us, at least for me personally, as I imagine it was with Enos, who said concerning his remarkable experience, “. . . behold, the voice of the Lord came into my mind.”
. . . Not one of us who was present on that occasion was ever quite the same after that.162
Elder David B. Haight recalled, “The Spirit touched each of our hearts with the same message in the same way. Each was witness to a transcendent heavenly event.”163 He spoke of the event again eighteen years later: “I was there. I was there with the outpouring of the Spirit in that room so strong that none of us could speak afterwards. We just left quietly to go back to the office. No one could say anything because of the heavenly spiritual experience.”164 Elder Marvin J. Ashton called it “the most intense spiritual impression I’ve ever felt.”165 Elder Packer said that during the prayer all present became aware what the decision must be.166
President Ezra Taft Benson recorded in his journal: “Following the prayer, we experienced the sweetest spirit of unity and conviction that I have ever experienced. . . . Our bosoms burned with the righteousness of the decision we had made.”167 He also said he “had never experienced anything of such spiritual magnitude and power.”168 Each who felt this powerful spiritual experience confirming the decision proposed by President Kimball perceived it as a revelation.
Elder Howard W. Hunter said, “Following the prayer . . . comments were made about the feeling shared by all, that seldom, if ever, had there been greater unanimity in the council.”169
Elder Perry said, “I don’t think we’ve had a president more willing to entreat the Lord or more receptive since the Prophet Joseph. We knew that he had received the will of the Lord.”170
As the prophet arose from his knees, he first encountered Elder Haight, the newest Apostle, and they embraced. Elder Haight could feel President Kimball’s heart pounding and could feel his intense emotion. The President continued around the circle, embracing each Apostle in turn.171 Others spontaneously embraced, also.
Spencer felt that the reaction evidenced his brethren’s acceptance of the policy change and, at the same time, their acceptance of him. Elder Perry said,
It was just as though a great burden had been lifted. He was almost speechless. It was almost impossible for him to contain his joy. Nothing was said or had to be said. We sensed what the answer was, the decision was made. There was a great feeling of unity among us and relief that it was over. As I have talked with other members of the Twelve since then, they felt the same as I did. I don’t think the Twelve will ever be the same again. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.172
President Kimball also later said, “I felt an overwhelming spirit there, a rushing flood of unity such as we had never had before.” And he knew that the fully sufficient answer had come.173
Emotion overflowed as the group lingered. When someone reminded President Kimball of the earlier appearance of Wilford Woodruff to LeGrand Richards in the room, Spencer said he thought it natural: “President Woodruff would have been very much interested, because he went through something of the same sort of experience” with the Manifesto.174 The Brethren expressed their elation at the events, pleasing President Kimball by the depth of their feeling. They felt greatly relieved that the decision was made and pleased with the outcome. They had yearned for this change but had needed the confirmation of the Spirit to reassure them. After their experience—so sacred that some would not discuss it and the thought of it capable of bringing tears—every man stood resolute in support of the action. Elder McConkie felt that
this was done by the Lord in this way because it was a revelation of such tremendous significance and import; one that would reverse the whole direction of the Church, procedurally and administratively; one that would affect the living and the dead; one that would affect the total relationship that we have with the world; one . . . of such significance that the Lord wanted independent witnesses who could bear record that the thing had happened.175
The Announcement and Reactions
Ordinarily after the weekly meeting the group would change out of temple clothing and conduct Church business. One suggested that because of the experience they had just had, they adjourn for the day. But President Kimball, intent on moving the Church forward, asked them to continue. They did so, but because their intense feelings continued they were reluctant to bring forward any business that could wait.
Among the undecided business was how to announce the decision. President Kimball asked Elders Packer, McConkie, and Hinckley each to propose in writing a course of action.176
Though the decision had been made and the Twelve had agreed, President Kimball continued to go to the temple, praying that the rest of the General Authorities would accept this momentous change. During the next days, Camilla thought him as agitated as she had ever seen. But she still had no idea what was causing him such concern.
On Wednesday, June 7, President Kimball advised his counselors in their meeting that he had decided the time had come to announce the removal of priesthood restrictions on black male members and that he had asked three of the Twelve to propose drafts of an announcement. Francis Gibbons had constructed from the three memoranda a composite draft. The First Presidency revised this draft, spending a good deal of time on the exact wording.177
On Thursday, June 8, the Presidency presented to the Twelve the proposed announcement.178 All of the Twelve present had a chance to comment, and minor editorial changes were made.179 They discussed timing. Some thought it best to wait for October general conference. Others suggested making the announcement at the mission presidents’ seminar the next week. But Elder McConkie urged immediate release: “It will leak, and we have to beat Satan. He’ll do something between now and then to make it appear that we’re being forced into it.” Despite tight security, employees at the Church Office Building sensed that something important was afoot, though no one knew exactly what.180 Rumors had already begun to spread.
After discussion, the First Presidency and Twelve adopted Elder Packer’s suggestion that they make the announcement in the form of a letter to local Church leaders throughout the world. Before sending the letter, they would release it through the media, making the new policy known to the whole world simultaneously (after presenting it first to the other General Authorities).181 After the meeting, President Kimball felt tremendously weary but pleased at the sense he had of continuing unity. He knew that others did not always fully share his views,182 and he may have feared that this change in policy would be seen by some as his personal objective. He seems to have carefully laid the groundwork for consensus with the Twelve by consultation, discussion, and full inclusion in the crucial temple meeting when he prayed for the Lord’s will to be known.183
The significance President Kimball attributed to unanimity can be seen in how President Tanner presented the matter to the Church at the next general conference:
President Kimball has asked that I advise the conference that after he had received this revelation, which came to him after extended meditation and prayer in the sacred rooms of the holy temple, he presented it to his counselors, who accepted it and approved it. It was then presented to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, who unanimously approved it, and was subsequently presented to all other General Authorities, who likewise approved it unanimously.
He then proposed acceptance as “the word and will of the Lord.”184
Two of the Twelve had not attended either meeting. Elder Mark E. Petersen was on assignment in South America, and Elder Delbert L. Stapley was seriously ill in the LDS Hospital. Later in the day of June 8, Spencer telephoned Elder Petersen in Quito, Ecuador, informed him what had happened, had Francis Gibbons read him the announcement about to be published, and received his approval. Elder Petersen later recalled, “I was delighted to know that a new revelation had come from the Lord. I felt the fact of the revelation’s coming was more striking than the decision itself. On the telephone I told President Kimball that I fully sustained both the revelation and him one hundred percent.”185
All three of the First Presidency visited Elder Stapley. He responded, “I’ll stay with the Brethren on this.” Thus, support from the Twelve was unanimous.186
On the afternoon of June 8, the First Quorum of the Seventy held its regular monthly meeting. President Kimball sent a message that the First Presidency wanted to meet with all available General Authorities the next morning in the Salt Lake Temple’s fourth-floor council room, and all were to come fasting. They were asked to postpone travel if possible and cancel any conflicting appointments without advising their secretaries or anyone else of the meeting. Some had trouble figuring out how to manage that. The regular monthly meeting of all the General Authorities had been held in the temple just a week before, so the purpose of this special meeting generated much speculation on subjects such as the Second Coming, authorization to ordain blacks to the priesthood, and building a temple in Missouri.187
Also on Thursday, June 8, Heber Wolsey, managing director of Public Communications, went home early because he felt ill. About four o’clock, President Tanner came to Heber’s office and asked the secretary to have him come back. After a brief meeting with President Tanner, Heber told his associate that they should be standing by at 7:30 the next morning prepared to handle “an important announcement.”
That afternoon, Bill Smart, editor of the Deseret News, attended an unrelated meeting with Elder Monson, who quietly told him, “Reserve space for an important announcement tomorrow.”
“What is it?”
“I can’t say anything now; it is confidential.”
“Can you tell me whether to put it on the front page or on B-1 [the first page of the local news section]?”
“You’ll know when you see it!”188
On Friday, the meeting commenced at 7 a.m., with all dressed in their temple clothing.189 After the hymn “We Thank Thee, O God, for a Prophet,” President Benson offered the prayer. Elder Maxwell later said, “I had no inkling what was going on. And as we knelt down to pray, the spirit told me what it was going to be . . . and after that prayer, President Kimball began the description. I began to weep.”190
As Elder Paul H. Dunn recalled, President Kimball said:
Thank you for making the necessary arrangements to be here. I want to tell you about some important things. As a boy in Arizona I wondered why the Indians were so poor and looked down upon. I asked my father, who was kind and never too busy to answer my questions, and he told me about the Book of Mormon and its connection with the Indians and their condition. My father never lied to me. Later I asked him about blacks and the priesthood. My father said that the time would come when they would receive the priesthood. I believed him, although it troubled me. I was called as a stake president. When one of the Twelve came I asked him. He said, “I don’t know, but the time will come.” I became a General Authority and asked President Grant, “If I am to represent you and the Lord, I need to be able to answer questions about race and priesthood.” He said that the time would come when that restriction would change.191
By now, the Seventies realized where President Kimball was going; they were first stunned, then ecstatic.192
According to Elder Dunn, President Kimball continued:
Then one day the mantle fell on me. Brethren, you will never know how many times when you have gone home at night, instead of going home I have come to this room and poured out my heart. Now the Lord has answered me, and the time has come for all worthy men to receive the priesthood. I shared that with my counselors and the Twelve, and after getting their response I present it to you. But I won’t announce it to the world without first counseling with you. We are not in a hurry. I want to hear from you.193
He had Frances Gibbons read the text of the proposed announcement and asked for comments. The Apostles led the way. Elder McConkie, among the first to speak, gave an impassioned extemporaneous lecture on the relevant scriptures.194 President Benson confirmed that he had never experienced so remarkable a manifestation as on the first of June.195 President Romney said:
Brethren, I have a confession to make. I knew President Kimball was searching for an answer, and whenever we discussed the question, I told him, “If you get an answer I will support you with all my strength,” but I did not expect him to get an answer. If the decision had been left to me, I would have felt that we’ve always had that policy and we would stick to it no matter what the opposition. I resisted change in my feelings, but I came to accept it slowly. I have now changed my position 180 degrees. I am not just a supporter of this decision. I am an advocate. When the revelation came, I knew the mind and the will of the Lord had been made manifest.196
Another of the brethren said, “I would have voted against such a proposal until I experienced the feeling that I did in this room this morning.” Each of the others verbally endorsed the proposal. Elder Hanks, nearly overcome with emotion, said, “I thank God I lived long enough to see this day.”197 A vote approved the decision unanimously.198 Spencer put his hand on President Tanner’s knee and said, “Eldon, go tell the world.” President Tanner left to deliver the announcement to Heber Wolsey, managing director of Public Communications, who was standing by. President Tanner returned in a few moments and reported: “It’s done.”199
Members of the Twelve were assigned to contact the few General Authorities who were absent as mission presidents, and the absent men all gave their assent.200 By the time the General Authorities had dressed and returned to their offices, the word was out. Phone lines were jammed.
Without addressing questions of history or justification, the announcement said simply God had revealed that the day had come for granting priesthood and temple blessings to all who are worthy.201 The final text, canonized as Official Declaration–2 in the Doctrine and Covenants, reads, in critical part:
[T]hat people of many nations have responded to the message of the restored gospel . . . 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.
. . . [W]e 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. . . .
Sincerely yours, . . .
The First Presidency.
The General Authorities were instructed not to interpret or editorialize but to let the announcement speak for itself. The First Presidency would also not be available for media interview concerning the revelation.202
Friday morning Heber Wolsey waited for the announcement President Tanner had told him to expect. When Heber received a copy of the announcement and read it over, he wept. President Tanner said, “You’re not the first to shed tears,” and instructed him to release the statement.
Back in his office, Heber said to Jerry Cahill, “What would you consider ‘an important announcement’?” The response was: perhaps a new temple. Then Heber joyously handed Jerry a copy. At his first free moment, Jerry Cahill closed the door to his office and knelt to pray. “An overwhelming feeling swept through [him] as in a wave.” He could not utter a formal prayer, but experienced the most striking expression of divine power of his life, confirming to him the revelation.
Despite their emotions, they had to deal with the business at hand. The first press run at the Deseret News sometimes began as early as 10:30, so speed mattered. Quickly they went about their duties. They prepared a two-paragraph press release and an audiocassette of the letter, then called a press conference at which Heber Wolsey would read the announcement. They were under instructions to get the widest possible dissemination of the full text of the letter but to offer no explanations or commentary. Primary concerns were accuracy, simplicity, and dignity. The Brethren wanted a modest, straightforward announcement with no cross-examination.203
The Public Communications staff of forty came together to hear the announcement read, then dispersed to inform their assigned contacts about the press conference. When Duane Cardall, religion reporter for KSL–TV, got the call that an important announcement would be made, he queried, “What is it?”
“We can’t tell you.”
“Come on, what is it?”
“The blacks are going to get the priesthood.”
“Come on, what is the announcement?”
“No, it is serious.”
Cardall drove in a microwave truck to the Church Office Building, ran into the building, and hurried to the Public Communications office on the 25th floor. With a copy of the statement in hand, he sped downstairs and broadcast a news bulletin standing on the street, interrupting regular programming.
With no advance notice, the story hit like a bolt out of the blue, an incredible, stunning announcement.204 By late morning, all the news media had copies of the release.
Meanwhile, amid all the excitement, the routine work of the kingdom went on. Spencer’s journal for the day reads, laconically:
This morning at seven o’clock by prior arrangement met in the upper room of the Salt Lake Temple with all of the General Authorities to consider with them the matter of giving the Priesthood to all worthy male members of the Church.
After our meeting returned to the office and released the following letter concerning giving the priesthood to all worthy male members of the Church: (See above copy of letter.)
Immediately following the release of this announcement the telephones started to ring and rang continuously the balance of the afternoon. People, members and nonmembers, called from around the world to learn if what they had heard on the radio and TV was true.
The First Presidency met with the Presiding Bishopric at 10:15 a.m. which was much later than usual due to our meeting in the Temple.
At 11:00 a.m. the First Presidency met with a Mr. Ron Smith of Newsmaking International.
This afternoon at 2:30, President David P. Gardner of the University of Utah brought [the eminent historian] Dr. [John Hope] Franklin, a black man, in to meet me and came into my office for a short visit.205
Had appointments with several of the General Authorities this afternoon on matters they needed to discuss with me. Also my counselors and I met with the Missionary Committee and then later with Brother Heber G. Wolsey and Wendell J. Ashton [of Public Communications].
It was a very busy day today and did not get away from the office until six o’clock tonight.
The word spread like lightning through official Church channels, over radio and television, and by word of mouth. In some heavily Mormon communities, the telephone circuits became so overloaded that it was nearly impossible to get a call through. Exultation, gratitude, excitement, and other emotions competed for place.
When Elder Dunn arrived at a board of directors meeting right after the temple meeting, it was obvious that he had been weeping.206
At lunchtime, Heber Wolsey went home to share the news with his wife, Fay. She said she had received a call from his office and “when you get back to your office you’re going to have a surprise.” Heber recounts:
On returning to the office, I opened the door and saw Darius Gray [a black LDS businessman and good friend] looking fondly out the window at the Salt Lake Temple. He rushed to me, and we threw our arms around each other and wept for gratitude and joy. When we regained a little composure, I whispered, “I never thought . . .”
“I always knew,” said Darius. “I just didn’t know if it would happen on this side of the veil.”
“. . . in our lifetime!”
Darius looked at me, then out the window at the temple, and then at me again. He closed his eyes, opened them slowly, and said softly, “God is good.”207
Max Pinegar, president of the Language Training Mission (later renamed the Missionary Training Center), had an appointment with Elder Packer that morning. Elder Packer arrived late for the appointment and said, “Come sit by me,” then handed him the press release. To Max’s tears, he said, “This means that you will be teaching black missionaries at the LTM.” Elder Packer bore personal witness of the correctness of the change. Knowing that the LTM would be in commotion, Max got permission to call a mission conference for that evening. They parted without ever having dealt with the issues of their planned meeting.208
Rick Vernon, a neighbor of the Kimballs, was working at a bank; he received an emotional call about 11:30 a.m. from Elder Hinckley’s secretary, a personal friend. Now he understood why President Kimball had seemed withdrawn.
While Camilla was working in the garden in the late morning, she heard the telephone ring and came in to answer it. Her daughter, Olive Beth, asked excitedly, “Have you heard the news?”
“About the revelation that all worthy men can receive the priesthood!”
Camilla sat down on the floor and wept in joy and relief—joy for the revelation and relief for her husband. She understood now what had weighed so heavily on Spencer’s mind. She had seen him so distraught only one other time.209 Spencer had always maintained strict confidentiality where Church business was concerned. She sometimes humorously complained that he couldn’t remember what was confidential and what was not, so he solved the problem by never telling her anything. She had to read about new developments in the Church News.210
Camilla went into the bedroom and poured out her heart in a prayer of gratitude and in desire that this development would not burden Spencer with new controversy. She worried that it might cause a schism in the Church, that there would be those who could not accept a change.211 Her first thought was that Spencer’s anxiety had arisen from fear of possible schism, but she later concluded that his intensity stemmed rather from his deep desire to receive some sort of manifestation confirming the decision he had arrived at.212
Spencer tried soon afterward to call Camilla with the news, but she was back in the garden and did not hear the telephone. He then called Olive Beth to ask if she knew where her mother was. Then he hesitated, as if wondering what he should tell her, so Olive Beth went on, “I just heard the wonderful news. It is marvelous!”
Spencer responded, “It is the most earthshaking thing that has happened in my lifetime.”213
That evening the story led off NBC News. That afternoon and the next morning the story ran on the front page of major newspapers across the country—the New York Times, Boston Globe, Washington Post. Time and Newsweek stopped their presses to include the news in their weekly runs.214 Most newspapers reported neutrally: “The Mormon Church announced Friday a revelation from God will give its priesthood to all worthy male members.” Some commentators scorned the “convenience” of a “revelation” that allowed a way out of an intolerable bind, but others noted accurately that it had been some years since any significant demonstrations against BYU and the Church had occurred. External pressure was the lowest it had been for years.215
Because Church leaders declined to comment, reporters began to interview men and women on the street for reactions, NAACP officials, and leaders of other local churches. The responses were almost uniformly positive. The media next turned to black members of the Church, who proved to be articulate and devoted, fielding questions—often barbed—with tact, patience, and humility. An elderly lifetime member said, “We have all waited for this, but I didn’t think it would come in my lifetime.”216 Monroe Fleming, expressing his happiness, said, “It’s like not feeling you’re a guest in your father’s house anymore.”217 Robert Stevenson said, “After hearing the news, I called my wife at work and told her to come home immediately. When she was home I told her the news and she broke into tears and laughter at the same time. We are already planning our temple marriage.”218 Joseph Freeman said, “This is something we’ve waited a long time for,” though he had never been primarily concerned with the question of priesthood. “I knew for sure that this was Christ’s church. . . . I felt certain that the time would come . . . when I would be able to hold the priesthood.”219
The news brought nearly universal rejoicing among members, both because of the extension of blessings to worthy families who had been denied them, but also because it illustrated in dramatic fashion the Church teaching that revelation continues to the present. As the news spread through Utah and beyond, people embraced and cried and rejoiced. As with such events as Pearl Harbor and the John F. Kennedy assassination, Latter-day Saints remember where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news.220
A reporter who came from a local television station to the press conference had been somewhat antagonistic to the Church. When he was told to cover an “extremely important announcement” at Church headquarters, he and a cameraman ran the several blocks to the Church Office Building. Breathless, he received a copy of the announcement from hands shaking in excitement.
He said later, “I felt that I was being a witness to history. I remember being emotional. I sensed a lot of happiness at the Church offices . . . a great burden being lifted. There was a sense of joy; people were genuinely thrilled.” He understood then that the Mormons had not been acting out of bigotry, as he supposed, but out of principle. “I experienced a change in feelings toward the Church that day.” The exultant reactions of the Public Communications staff members and others he interviewed on the street persuaded him, as years of explanation and protestation had not. He rushed back to his station and personally read on the air the bulletin: “God has spoken to the prophet of the Mormon Church.”221
Mary Frances Sturlaugson, a young black woman, recorded that in a downtown office a friend told her the news. She said, “Please don’t joke with me about something like that.”
At that instant a young man who had been talking on the phone stood up and, with his fists stretched above his head, shouted, “All right!”
Cold chills went completely through my body. All I could say was, “I don’t believe it’s happened.” An older man beside me kept repeating, “I’ll be darned, I’ll be darned.”
As I walked outside, crying like a happy kid at Christmastime, horns were honking like crazy. I stopped for a red light and a car pulled up. The driver asked me if I had heard what he had just heard. I half mumbled and half nodded a disbelieving yes. He whooped and started blowing his horn as he drove off. When I arrived at my apartment my roommates ran out to meet me, and we jumped up and down screaming with joy. Finally we went inside and each said a prayer, sobs punctuating every one.222
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.223
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.224
Twenty-six-year-old Joseph Freeman, a black member of the Church for five years, rose the morning of June 9 knowing that the lawn of his home in Salt Lake Valley needed watering and weeding. The insistent ringing of the telephone brought him in from the yard, and a white friend asked, “Have you heard? Well, listen! President Kimball has had a revelation—about your people, the blacks.’”
Waiting for the punch line of what he assumed was a bad joke, Joseph kept calm.
“Turn on the TV and see for yourself,” the friend insisted.
Joseph telephoned the Church switchboard, and the operator put him through to the First Presidency’s office. A secretary told him, “Yes, Brother Freeman, what you’ve heard is true.” On Sunday, June 11, Joseph Freeman became the first black man in Utah to be ordained to the priesthood.225 Being first made him an instant celebrity, and he was deluged with interview requests from Time, Ebony, People, writers, television news commentators, national television shows, and disk jockeys with call-in shows. Church meetings and firesides booked him six months in advance. Sometimes he had three or four appointments in a single Sunday.226
New York lawyer George H. Mortimer recalled:
I was working in the public search room at the Patent Office in Washington, D.C. . . . The clerk had a radio playing and as I walked past the little office I heard the announcer say, “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has just made public a revelation that Negroes may now hold the Priesthood.” I will always remember the thrill. . . . The following Sunday I was in Manhattan . . . [and] every black member over 12 years of age [was ordained] to an appropriate office in the Priesthood. The joy expressed in the faces . . . is indescribable.227
A week after the announcement, Ruffin Bridgeforth, leader of Genesis, had still not been ordained because his local leader with that responsibility was out of town. Elder Packer, discussing the situation with President Kimball, asked whether Brother Bridgeforth might properly be ordained a high priest rather than an elder in light of his long and faithful service. After pondering the question, President Kimball said, “Yes, that’s right. You do that.” After Brother Bridgeforth was ordained, he asked Elder Packer to give his wheelchair-bound wife, Helena, a priesthood blessing. Elder Packer later recalled, “I laid my hands on her head and just as I was to speak, I thought, ‘Ruffin, you can now give this blessing.’ And when he began that blessing—and he needed no coaching—by the authority of the Melchizedek Priesthood, that . . . was a moment in Church history.”228
Spencer attended Helena’s funeral in 1980. Ruffin said of him, “What manner of man is this who can take away my sadness?”229
President Kimball, Immediately Afterward
The day after the announcement, Spencer’s barber trimmed his hair in preparation for a trip to Hawaii and found him “happy, buoyant, and warm . . . [with] a great weight off his shoulders.”230 In Hawaii President Kimball attended a stake conference, rededicated the temple,231 conducted an area conference (the first in the United States), and convened a solemn assembly for leaders. Elder John H. Groberg asked if Spencer had time to meet some of the faithful black Church members living in the islands. “I would like to meet all of them,” Spencer answered. When he met with a small group he gave each a bear hug. With characteristic warmth, he told a black Marine, “I just so appreciate your joining the Church under trying conditions—and now you’re being blessed for it.”232 Many people reported to him that they had wept tears of joy and gratitude upon hearing of the revelation. Some wept anew in the retelling.233
When reporters in Hawaii asked about the revelation, Spencer answered, “It is a different world than it was twenty or twenty-five years ago. The world is ready for it.” The reporters also asked him for details about receiving the revelation, but the president described it as “a personal thing.” He sidestepped further questions on the subject, saying he was there to rededicate the temple.234
Although he felt the subject inappropriate for a press conference, Spencer willingly talked about the revelation in a personal conversation with his son, expressing the view that this revelation was “the most important thing to happen in the Church since the Manifesto” in 1890, yet he felt great concern lest some people sensationalize it. He particularly stressed that it had not come in an open vision. “Some people would try to figure it out that I had a personal visitation from the Almighty as in the First Vision. I would not want to make the revelation different from what it was. When I meet little children they sometimes look up at me and say, ‘Do you talk to Jesus?’ It sets my heart in a whirl, because their simple expectations are so high.” Still, he had no doubts that he had received a revelation and that its source was divine. The strong, distinct, sacred impression he experienced banished for him even the thought of questioning its source.235
For the Twelve, their respect for President Kimball was augmented by the revelatory process. Elder Perry commented, “This is an example of President Kimball’s willingness to take on himself the prophetic calling. It was not a result of a ‘policy decision,’ but of his going to the Lord. He has the courage to be a prophet.”236
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.”237
A few weeks after the event, Elder Packer said, “I have feared we might lose him, now that this great work is done. I hope there is something else only he can do, to keep him here. No one else could have done this; there is none so innocent and open, so sensitive.”238