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James T. Summerhays
Tuesday, March 06 2012

A Mormon Priesthood Timeline

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Because of a recent statement by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints strongly denouncing all forms of racism within and without the Church both past and present, many are curious about the history of the Church’s restrictions on priesthood, a policy that ended thirty four years ago. An article in BYU Studies on this topic, published originally in 2008, has recently come available: “This article is the definitive scholarly treatment of the 1978 priesthood revelation,” says Professor John W. Welch, editor-in-chief of BYU Studies. “Written by Edward L. Kimball, son and biographer of President Spencer W. Kimball, this lengthy article should be on the top of the reading list for anyone interested in this topic. This article candidly and accurately discusses the history of the policies concerning the repealed priesthood restrictions, the several factors that led President Kimball to seek revelation on the matter, and the process by which the revelation was given, announced, and eagerly received.” The article, which was published to mark the 30th anniversary of that landmark turning point in Church history, is now released from its normal subscribers-only embargo period and is free to all. (Click here to receive that article.)

A timeline, based on Edward Kimball’s article, is provided below that highlights major events in the history of the Church concerning priesthood. The timeline shows that those with black skin were ordained in early nineteenth-century Church history; that as the Church expanded into nations such as the Philippines and Fiji in the 1940s, those with black skin were ordained to the priesthood; and that in 1978 Church leaders received a revelation that all males, particularly those of African descent, could now receive the priesthood.

Since that day, Mormons have welcomed a new day and have been eager to move forward. Says Professor Welch of past difficulties, “It remains for us to sorrow with those who have sorrowed, to comfort those that stand in need of comfort, to forgive, to change, improve, and go about doing good.”

Mormon Priesthood Timeline

March 1836: Elijah Able, an early black convert, pioneer, and missionary, is ordained an elder in the Melchizedek Priesthood. Elijah served in the priesthood at Nauvoo with the Prophet Joseph Smith’s full knowledge.

December 1836: Elijah Able is ordained a Seventy in the priesthood.

1843 or 1844: Walker Lewis, an African American, is ordained an elder by Apostle William Smith, the Prophet’s brother, while Joseph is still alive.

1852: President Brigham Young is quoted in Wilford Woodruff’s journal as saying, “The seed of Cane [sic] . . . cannot hold the priesthood and if no other prophet ever spake it before I will say it now.”

1879: Joseph F. Smith notes that Elijah Able has two certificates identifying him as a Seventy, one of them issued in Utah.

1948: The First Presidency authorizes giving the priesthood to “Negrito men,” who are native men with black skin who have no known African ancestry. Men with black skin are ordained in the Philippines, Brazil, Australia, Fiji, and various island nations, thus punctuating the view that the policy was never about race or certain racial characteristics, but one that strictly reflected ancestry and descent.  

1949: The First Presidency issues a statement that frames the question of priesthood as “the attitude of the Church”: “The attitude of the Church with reference to Negroes remains as it always stood. 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.” However, the First Presidency does not (and cannot) produce any such document purporting to be a direct revelation or commandment, nor does the general body of Saints ever publically raise their hands to sustain any such document,which is the regular practice of the Church in accepting official scripture. The First Presidency continues later in the statement to say that “the details of this principle have not been made known.”

1954: David O. McKay, Church President, discontinues the local practice in South Africa requiring converts (of various races) to trace all lines of their ancestry out of Africa. McKay also personally concludes that the restriction is a policy, but one that must be overturned through revelation and not simple by administrative action.

1954: President McKay, according to his associates, “pleaded and pleaded with the Lord” for a revelation to overturn the priesthood restriction, “but had not had the answer he sought,” and “finally concluded that the time was not ripe.”

1965: The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 are passed in the United States.

1969: Under pressure from growing opposition to the Church’s priesthood policy, The First Presidency issues another statement affirming the policy on priesthood. The statement also affirms that black people “must have equal opportunities and protection under the law with reference to civil rights” and should have their “full Constitutional privileges.” The statement quotes President McKay, saying that“sometime” in the future, those of African descent “will be given the right to hold the priesthood.” In commenting on this statement, Hugh B. Brown of the First Presidency is quoted by the Salt Lake Tribune, saying that the policy on priesthood “will change in the not too distant future.”

1977: Traditionally a strong defender of the priesthood ban, Bruce R. McConkie dramatically changes course and writes a lengthy memorandum to Church President Spencer W. Kimball. The memorandum concludes that there is no scriptural barrier to overturning the Church’s policy on priesthood. Concerning this dramatic change, Kimball later spoke publically “of his gratitude to Elder McConkie for some special support he received in the days leading up to the revelation on priesthood.”

March 1978: After months of studying and praying alone in the Holy of Holies of the Salt Lake Temple, President Kimball confides in his counselors that he has received an impression to lift the restrictions on African blacks. The First Presidency decides to bring up the matter with the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles before making a final decision.

May 1978: During a Church leadership meeting when the priesthood policy was discussed, Elder LeGrand Richards sees a vision of a bearded man, dressed in white, “having the appearance of [former Church President] Wilford Woodruff.” Nearly a century before, Woodruff had received the Manifesto, a revelation overturning the Church’s practice of plural marriage.

June1, 1978: The First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles unite in prayer at the Salt Lake Temple, and simultaneously receive a revelation that their decision to offer the priesthood to all worthy males is correct. Most of the Apostles report the event as the most intense spiritual experience of their lives; others describe the outpouring of God’s Spirit in terms of the Day of Pentecost in the New Testament.

1978 to present: The revelation itself did not include any theological explanation, and to this day the theological underpinnings of the priesthood restriction are not understood.


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