The Prohibition Against Blacks in the Priesthood

A look at the forces at work that culminated in the lifting of the ban in 1978, and current LDS President Gordon Hinckley's personal account of this landmark moment.

Greg Prince
Greg Prince is the author of David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism and a book on the Mormon priesthood.

Until the early 1960s there had not been overt pressure on the church to reverse this ban on ordaining blacks to the priesthood, but then it started to pop up as the civil rights movement began to mature. The Salt Lake chapter of the NAACP [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People] threatened to picket [the church's] General Conference if the church didn't come out and make a positive statement on civil rights, not even demanding at that point that they reverse that policy. They just wanted the church to go on record as being supportive of the civil rights movement. And eventually that happened, and it avoided that picketing of the General Conference. A couple years later the same issue emerged, and the church again had to restate its support of the civil rights movement, even though some members of the church, including President McKay, did it begrudgingly.

On the athletic front, it became an embarrassment, because Stanford University and then other universities announced, "We will no longer compete with Brigham Young University in intercollegiate athletics because of this ban." Well, that didn't get it changed, but it put a lot of pressure on. …

There was also the injunction that had existed for decades, "Take the Gospel to all the world." There wasn't an asterisk as the end of it saying, "Oh, by the way, you can exclude black Africa." This weighed on Spencer Kimball. All of those things, I think, had a cumulative effect. ...

I was not aware, in the wake of the announcement of the revelation, of anybody in the church who had anything other than a sense of joy and relief. It was a burden lifted off our backs. Some had been crushed by the burden and had left. Some were sagging. [For] some it may have been a light burden, but they knew it was there and were glad that it was gone. I was an Elder's Quorum president then, and it was only a few weeks after that that I ordained a black man in my quorum. It was an interesting feeling -- it was like, OK, things are right in the world where they weren't right in the world before. ...

The 1978 revelation that lifted the ban took away one of the major stigmas that the church had. I think it allowed particularly American society to look at us differently, ... because we were out there alone on this one. By reversing that ban we did away with the impediment to our inclusion in that larger community of churches, so I think that overall it had an enormous positive effect on our public image. Certainly it has had a positive effect on where we can go and what we can do to build the church. We're in areas now -- with established congregations, with bishops, with stake presidents who are black -- that we couldn't have dreamed of 40 or 50 years ago, and yet there we are.

Marlin Jensen
Marlin K. Jensen is the executive director of the LDS Family and Church History Department and a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy.

Where were you when the revelation came about the black priesthood?

Great question. I know right where I was. I was on 26th Street in Ogden, Utah, and I was in my car; I heard it on the car radio. ... I was absolutely thrilled, stunned, thrilled, elated, and have been equally elated with the way that has played out now in the intervening 20 or so years.

Before the ban was lifted, tell me how the civil rights movement was experienced by your community.

The ban on the blacks in the priesthood was a very big issue. There was a lot of adverse press coverage that the church received, that BYU received because of athletic endeavors. There were books and articles written, even within the church, that were very negative about the church's position on that issue. ... We can accept, I think, the indictment that sometimes we have been provincial, and I think we probably were to some extent on this point. ...

My opinion at the time [was] it was a matter of timing. I just hoped, I guess, and prayed that they would come sooner than later, because I didn't doubt that it had been instituted under prophetic direction, and my hope was that it would be lifted under prophetic direction, and that's what eventually happened.

During that intervening time, when there was the turmoil and the tension, it was just an unhappy time, I think, for people who were very civil rights-minded and felt like the Book of Mormon was talking about, "All are alike unto God, black and white, male and female, bond and freed," and yet we had a church that had this ban on the priesthood. So everyone, I think, was overjoyed when eventually God saw fit to lift that ban through the prophet. And now as our Scripture says, "Truly all men can speak in the name of God." ...

There is lingering folklore of the ban, and many active, faithful Mormons think more should be said about it. Could you talk about that?

Yeah. I was aware of the feelings on the part of many, many good black members of the church, and many white members of the church, that there's this body of writing and recorded speaking that was all well-intentioned. It had its purpose trying to offer some rationale for why that ban existed, and then once the ban was lifted, that sort of remained in some form in various publications and so on.

A few years ago I did suggest that something be done within the realms of my ability to do that. But nothing ensued from that, and one thing I've learned as part of my belief is that when I feel strongly about something, and I've expressed myself on it to the leaders of the church, I leave it then in their hands, when I'm aware that they know all the facts. …

What is that folklore that troubles people?

The essential idea is that somehow in the life before this life, through some conduct on the part of black people, they were less worthy and had to spend some probationary time waiting then for the priesthood to be given to them. I think it's that idea that somehow they came here with some inherent disability, spiritually speaking, and that bothers them. It would bother me, too. And I don't think it's true. I think those were theories that were advanced, but I don't think there's any scriptural or doctrinal justification for them.

Gordon Hinckley
President Gordon B. Hinckley is the 15th president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He has led the church since March 1995.

We've spoken to a lot of people about the significance of that 1978 revelation. Blacks and whites and Mormons describe it as one of the most extraordinary moments in the church's history in the 20th century. I haven't spoken to anybody who was there, but I have read what you've said and written about that moment. Can you talk about it?

It was a landmark occasion. We were in the temple. We gathered in prayer, and President [Spencer] Kimball led in prayer, and he talked about it. It had been on his mind for a good while. And as he prayed, he talked with the Lord about it, and there just settled over us a feeling that this is the right thing; the time has come; now is the opportunity. And on the basis of that we proceeded.

In some of your speeches and writings on the subject, you also used language that I would love to know more about. You felt that a conduit to God had opened up and almost a Pentecostal spirit [was there] in the room.

No, it wasn't like any other moment. There was something of a Pentecostal spirit. But on the other hand it was peaceful, quiet, not a cataclysmic thing in any sense. There was just a feeling that came over all of us, and we knew that it was the right thing at the right time and that we should proceed. And this made all the difference in the world. We've grown strong in Africa and in Brazil and in other places. There is no race bias among us. It's been well received all over the church, and I'm satisfied in my own mind as one who was there that the right thing happened at the right time in the right way.

I gather for President Kimball it was something he brought to the Lord on many occasions, that he prayed night after night. Is that true?

That's my understanding. This was not just all of a sudden. This had been on his mind for a good long time. He had prayed about it, worried about it, talked about it. And then it happened.

Jeffrey Holland
Elder Jeffrey R. Holland is a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and a former president of Brigham Young University.

Where were you when you heard that the ban was lifted on blacks in the priesthood?

I can remember exactly where I was. For us that's the "where we [were] when Kennedy was shot," this deep, deep, spiritual, emotional moment in the history of the church. I was a very young commissioner of education, still in my 30s, and I was coming over from my office in the church office building to the suite of General Authority offices for something or other. ... I walked into the office of the General Authority I was going to see, and he said, "Have you heard the news?" This was barely moments out of the temple meeting and the announcement where it was official. And I said: "What news? I haven't heard any news." And he said all worthy men -- regardless of race or status or circumstance -- all worthy men are to receive priesthood. … I started to cry, and I was absolutely uncontrollable. I felt my way to a chair ... and I sort of slumped from the doorway into the chair and held my head, my face in my hands and sobbed. …

We don't pretend that something wasn't taught or practice wasn't pursued for whatever reason. But I think we can be unequivocal and we can be declarative in our current literature, in books that we reproduce, in teachings that go forward, whatever, that from this time forward, from 1978 forward, we can make sure that nothing of that is declared. That may be where we still need to make sure that we're absolutely dutiful, that we put [a] careful eye of scrutiny on anything from earlier writings and teachings, just [to] make sure that that's not perpetuated in the present. That's the least, I think, of our current responsibilities on that topic. ...