[See the Spanish translation of this post here.]
I watched with interest discussions such as this one that involved teaching about the Priesthood Ban in Sunday School as part of Lesson 42 on Continuing Revelation. I was at a party a few weeks ago and talked with the Sunday School president about what I’d been reading and hearing from others about how these lessons were going. I’d had him watch the Nobody Knows documentary a few months ago, and he had liked it, and he thought that a lesson on the topic might be beneficial. I told him that if that’s the direction he felt to go that he should run it by the bishop to make sure he was on board and that if so, I’d be willing to teach it. That Sunday he came back and said that it was a go for December 6, 2009.
So, I prepared by spending some time praying about how and what to present as well as reading Prince, Kimball, Bush, O’Donovan, and past JI posts . I purchased a .pdf of Ed Kimball’s BYU Studies article and emailed a copy to each ward member, asking them to try and read through some of it before class (fat chance at 70+ pages and with finals looming, but two or three did get to it and really liked it). I also sent out a power point presentation that a friend who taught this lesson had put together with relevant quotes and material. I went ahead and sent a copy to my former bishop whose dad had been, once upon a time, affiliated with Dialogue. He got back to me the same day I sent the article out and said that he had just spent “a joyous two hours” reading it.
As I formed my outline Saturday night, I determined that though I would spend a significant amount of time on the ban, ultimately, the lesson would need to focus on the events and the process leading up to the 1978 revelation. At the last minute, I concocted a half-baked, optional survey that I passed out at the beginning of class:
What reasons(s) for the priesthood ban have you heard? Circle all that apply.
1) Was instituted by revelation
2) Because of premortal issues
3) Less valiant/”Fence sitters” in premortality
4) Curse of Cain/Biblical/Book of Abraham
5) The Church wasn’t ready for full integration
6) Blacks weren’t ready for full integration
7) Ban has existed since the beginning (Joseph Smith)
8 ) Other (please specify)
I know, I could have done a lot better than that, and I don’t even know what the difference is supposed to be between 2 & 3. Results:
#8 (Other)-1 vote=>Church organization wasn’t sufficient to sustain the training needs with the imminent expansion that did follow.
Well, I started just articulating the lack of good evidence that Joseph Smith started the ban and talked a bit about some of the blacks that were ordained pre-1847: Elijah Abel, Joseph T. Ball, Walker Lewis and William McCarey. The discussion of McCarey segued into a discussion of Young’s statement in March 1847 that “It’s nothing to do with the blood for [from] one blood has God made all flesh. We have one of the best elders an African in Lowell.”
I then referred to William Appleby’s letter to Brigham Young concerning Enoch Lewis, his wife and child and saying, “Now dear Br. I wish to know if this is the order of God or tolerated in this Church ie to ordain Negroes to the Priesthood and allow amalgamation [inter-racial marriage]. If it is I desire to Know, as I have Yet got to learn it.”
Having introduced this notion of “amalgamation,” I took some time (not sure how effectively) to discuss attitudes at the time about inter-racial marriage and biblical justifications for racism and slavery which had existed long before the Church was established.
I continued the Appleby narrative telling about how he arrived in Winter Quarters and discussed the matter with Brigham Young. I cited BY’s assertion that “the law is their seed shall not be amalgamated,” but I spared us all the most vivid portion of that discussion.
I mentioned that BY referred to the Curse of Cain as the source of the restriction while others, facing a dilemma about punishing blacks for the sins of their “father” Cain, began to interpret scriptural passages and craft teachings about pre-mortal deficiencies to help explain the ban.
I mentioned that after BY died, there was still enough ambiguity on the subject that John Taylor called a council to study the matter. In the process I discussed Elijah Abel and Jane Manning James including Jane’s pleading to John Taylor, “Is there no blessing for me?”
I mentioned that despite problems with the testimony given at that council, Taylor and subsequent presidents seem to have carried with them the assumptions of past presidents on the matter. However, during David O. McKay’s presidency, he instituted a number of administrative changes that allowed the burden of proof to shift from baptismal candidates having to provide proof of freedom from African ancestry to being presumed to be free until evidence dictated otherwise. I mentioned that though a much more merciful policy, there were instances where genealogical research had revealed African ancestry and resulted in suspension of priesthood. I wanted to give them a sense, even if hopelessly incomplete, of the situation of black members without looking to use anything too shocking.
I then ran through a list of factors that began coming to a head in the 50s-70s that led to a desire to reevaluate or at least better understand the policy. 1) Large numbers of Africans setting up congregations in Africa and petitioning for missionaries, which created discussion about how to provide leadership for local congregations (among other things), 2) The Civil Rights movement caused the whole nation to reevaluate it’s views and treatment of blacks and other minorities. BYU sports teams faced boycott and some LDS Churches were vandalized over the issue. 3) Historical studies of the Ban had failed to yield any reliable evidence that Joseph Smith had begun the ban, and had even showed that at least one, Elijah Abel, had been ordained during Joseph’s life. General authorities were aware of these studies.
Hugh B. Brown believed that since the ban was a policy, that an administrative decision could change it. He was basically alone in this view among the apostles and first presidency and his views did not prevail.
With all these factors converging, Church leaders began to study and reevaluate the ban. Where before leaders had said that blacks would be able to receive the priesthood in mortality (or at the earliest in the millennium), statements began to leave room for reversal of the ban through revelation.
Some began to believe it was proper to pray for the ban to be lifted, others felt it proper to wait on the Lord to act. Pres. Kimball began as one who was content to vigorously support the ban and when he became president he stated that he anticipated no changes to the policy, but left the door open to change because of revelation.
Pres. Kimball had a long history of working with Native Americans and opposing racism. Many believe that this compassionate background served as one of many factors that made Pres. Kimball open to the possibility of change.
Pres. Kimball became increasingly concerned with the matter. It began to occupy his mind to the extent that close friends expressed some concern for his health. As the responsibility for the matter fell to him, Pres. Kimball found it no longer possible to wait for the Lord to act and began inquiring fervently to know the will of the Lord on the matter. He collected newspaper clippings and spent many hours in the temple praying and meditating over the issue. He pleaded to know if the current policy ought to be maintained. He received no immediate answer.
He invited members of the 12 to join him in prayer, discussion, and study of the issue.
“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 (Ed Kimball, SWK)
“This answer had become clear in Spencer’s mind as early as late March 1978, 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.”
Pres. Kimball continued to meet with and discuss the matter with the 12.
Finally, at a meeting with the 12 on June 1, 1978,
“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.” Each spoke in favor of change and Pres. Kimball asked them to join him in a prayer for a witness that this was indeed the Lord’s will. Forming a prayer circle, with Pres. Kimball as mouth, he prayed for that witness. There are many statements on record that describe what happened next.
[To this point, a few had commented. The Sunday School pres was one of the few to have gotten through a good amount of the article and talked very favorably of it and commented about some of the things that Pres. Kimball had done like spending hours in the temple, etc. Time was running short. I asked the class what lessons about revelation could be learned from this episode and took some good comments. One said that he was amazed to see the process of coming to the decision among the Brethren, which is a process of which very little is known. He said that probably a lot of decisions like a recent policy change had been arrived in the same way. I felt to push back just a bit on that comment and pointed out that most of those involved both at the time and years later had talked about how unique that particular experience was.]
I drew it down by quoting Bruce R. McConkie’s “Forget Everything” statement, Elder Holland’s PBS statements, and a brief portion from Pres. Hinckley on Racism from a past General Conference. I ended with this:
I believe in our humanity, and all the imperfection that comes with it. I also believe that the Lord has mercifully provided for us so that we can reach out to him and commune with him and receive knowledge from him, and step by step progress, in spite of our humanity. I’m grateful that the Lord continues to speak to each of us by revelation, and often that in doing so, he shows us our imperfections. Joseph Smith indeed spoke prophetically when he said, “We believe that He [God] will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God.”
I had been so wrapped up in giving the lesson that I hadn’t noticed the strong spirit that was present until the volunteer for the closing prayer mentioned it in the prayer. Indeed, it was there. I did get good comments, but not any more than, well, than usual. The bishop had been in and out, but said that the parts he heard were very good. One ward member did come up to me afterward and we talked for a good few minutes about a friend he had that was struggling with this issue. He said he just didn’t know enough to know what to tell him and he asked for help. I told him I’d help in any way with any issue that might be bothering him.
All in all, it was a good time. I felt good about how it went. I felt that I had done some good.
Past JI posts include: