Spencer: Following Joseph Smith’s death in 1844, the church continued on—and the priesthood with it. But as the church grew, the needs of church members changed. So, the history of the priesthood since Joseph Smith is characterized by adjustments to priesthood organization to meet the needs of a growing church.
And maybe you have wondered about some of these developments before. For instance, when did teenage boys start being ordained to the priesthood? How did priesthood quorums function a hundred years ago, and did they look different than they do today? How did race factor into decisions about who could hold the priesthood and who could not?
The development of priesthood organization since Joseph Smith. That’s what we’re talking about in this episode.
This is The Priesthood Restored: A Joseph Smith Papers Podcast, and I’m your host, Spencer McBride.
Spencer: Episode 5: “The Priesthood Organization”
Spencer: To help us understand the development of priesthood organization in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I spoke with Matthew McBride, the director of the Publications Division of the Church History Department.
Matthew: There have been thousands of changes, big and small, to priesthood organization and church organization over the last 190 years. If you want to kind of step back from all of that and try to generalize a little bit about what’s happened, you could say, first of all, that the only constant has been change. And then second, you could say that there has been, in general, a move toward greater standardization, more uniformity, more clarity, and a move toward strengthening and clarifying the lines of authority between the local church and the central or the general authorities.
The way this plays out is that we have periods in our history where we do a lot of work to clarify and to spell out exactly what the organization is going to look like. And of course, Joseph Smith’s lifetime is one of those time periods where you’ve got revelations, you’ve got all kinds of work happening to try to lay a foundation for the church. And the idea is that we create an organization that positions us for growth and then we grow.
Life happens, and sometimes that growth happens just really rapidly and we try our best along the way to make ad hoc changes to adapt to some of the changing circumstances. We have greater numbers; we have greater geographic spread; we have all these things happening. But at a certain point, we outgrow that organizational principle, or that set of organizational principles that we outlined at some point. And then we take a moment, and we stop, and we reflect, and we say, we need to go through and make some reforms or some changes that will respond to the growth that we’ve experienced and then also position us again for the next sprint, for the next experience of growth and change. And this has happened a few different times in the history of the church.
Spencer: One of these big moments of adjustment to priesthood organization occurred in 1877 under the direction of President Brigham Young.
Matthew: Between the early 1850s and 1870s, the church grows almost an order of magnitude. So, when the Saints are first getting established in Utah, you have about ten thousand people here. And then by the late 1870s we have more than a hundred thousand, and that’s really, really substantial growth. And Brigham Young has done his best along the way to adapt to this growth and adapt to the new circumstances that the church finds itself in as it’s settling this part of the United States.
But he stops in 1877. This is one of the last things he does before he dies, and he looks back and he says, there is a lot of inconsistency, and there are a lot of things that are happening in the way that the church’s organization is developed in response to this growth.
So, you have wards and branches and stakes which are all organizational units that we’re familiar with today, but they don’t relate to each other in the same way that they do today. They’re not consistent. You have many Latter-day Saints that are living completely outside any of these units or jurisdictions of the church, and you have bishops who in some settlements have only responsibility for the temporal welfare of the Saints, in other settlements bishops have more ecclesiastical authority, in others they have civic authority. Some bishops have counselors, others serve without counselors.
Spencer: In these wards and stakes, there was not always clear direction on who reported to whom, as a bishop reports to a stake president today. And many of the changes Brigham Young instituted concerned efficiency and uniformity in church operations.
Matthew: Brigham Young makes a number of organizational decisions, and then he puts them into a comprehensive policy statement. It’s a statement that is really, it’s not the first of its kind, but this is the first time since those revelations that we have in the Doctrine and Covenants that outline priesthood offices, established them, and do that work during Joseph Smith’s day. This is the first time that we have anything like this since then.
Spencer: Among other policies spelled out in this statement was the direction for bishops to have two counselors each, and that every bishop reported to his stake president, and each stake president to the general authorities of the church. Brigham Young and other church leaders felt that these changes positioned the church for future growth.
And the church did grow. In fact, it grew rapidly. And this growth would eventually require further changes and adjustments to priesthood organization.
In characterizing all of these changes, Matthew pointed to two of the church’s Articles of Faith. One of them states: “We believe in the same organization that existed in the Primitive Church, namely apostles, prophets, pastors, teachers, evangelists, and so forth.” The other Article of Faith reads: “We believe all that God has revealed, all that He does now reveal, and we believe that He will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God.”
Matthew: So, whereas that first idea is backward-looking, and it emphasizes continuity it emphasizes stability and kind of similarity with the past. This other idea really is more forward-looking. It lets us be aware of the changing circumstances that the church finds itself in, different political, different cultural circumstances, positions, just to think about how we can change and respond to growth. And so, these two ideas kind of exist there, and they’re not contradictory, but they exist in tension with one another. It’s a productive tension that lets us feel that sense of stability but also be positioned for change.
Spencer: One of the ways we see this principle in action in priesthood organization is the adjustments to priesthood offices to accommodate the needs of a growing church. The offices of the Aaronic Priesthood provide a helpful example.
Matthew: Just as in the church today, most offices of leadership and teaching and ministering are fulfilled by adults. In the early church the vast majority of people who held priesthood office of any kind, including the offices of deacon, teacher, and priest in the Aaronic Priesthood, were adult men. There were very, very few young men and youth that were ordained to these offices. These were the offices that were necessary in order for the church to function smoothly and to fulfill its mission.
Of course, then we look at the early to mid-twentieth century, and we see there’s been a complete sea change. It’s the absolute opposite, and almost everybody who is actively involved in a deacons, teachers, or priests quorum is a young man between the ages of twelve and eighteen.
Spencer: How did this change come about? What were some of the key moments? It turns out the change came about following the movement of a large number of men who were serving in Aaronic priesthood quorums who were ordained to offices in the Melchizedek Priesthood in the late 1850s.
Matthew: And there are a number of reasons for this. The temple endowment becomes a prerequisite for mission service, and it becomes a prerequisite for having your marriage sealed in the temple. And, if not required, at least strongly recommended that before you receive your endowment, you have been ordained to the Melchizedek Priesthood.
And so, of course, the men of the church are flocking to the temple. They want to receive the blessings of the endowment; they want to have their marriage sealed; they want to serve a mission; and, consequently, they all want to be ordained to the Melchizedek Priesthood. And this basically has the effect of emptying out all of the Aaronic Priesthood quorums.
One historian who studied this said that the Melchizedek Priesthood quorums sucked up all of the adult men in the church like a sponge. And this became a problem because, as we’ve said, those Aaronic Priesthood offices are actually still really vital to the functioning of the church. We need people in those quorums doing that work. And so you have local leaders that start to complain about it and say it is really hard to fill a deacons quorum. It’s really hard to fill a teachers quorum. There’s work that we need to do that we can’t do because we don’t have anyone in these offices.
And so, a lot of them actually start to call men from among the ranks of the Melchizedek Priesthood quorums to be acting teachers, acting priests, acting deacons to fulfill the responsibilities of those Aaronic Priesthood offices, even though they belong to Melchizedek Priesthood quorums. And so, this is one of those ad hoc adaptations that we do until we reach the moment where we realize something needs to change so that we can be positioned for the next step.
Spencer: Concern for the state of young men was also a factor in these adjustments. As a second generation of Latter-day Saints began to come of age, their parents wanted to ensure that these young people had faith in God and testimonies of the restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Matthew: It’s in the 1860s and the 1870s that you start to see things like the Sunday School crop up, and that’s for youth. We see the Children’s Primary is created during this time period. We see the Young Men’s and Young Ladies’ mutual improvement associations that are formed. All of these are efforts, of course, to address this problem of what do we do to ensure that the youth are going to be okay?
And it’s no coincidence that during the same time period, you start to see an increasing number of young men, boys really, between the ages of ten and twenty be ordained to Aaronic Priesthood office. And this starts slowly, and I think it starts first as a response to these needs, like we’re looking at, well, what does the church need? What does the ward need? Well, we need deacons, we need teachers, we need priests. But over the course of those 20 years or so, it pivots to what do the young people need? And how could participation in Aaronic Priesthood quorums help serve as kind of a training ground for future church service?
So, those are the dynamics of that change, and it really plays out largely between 1860 and 1880, so that by the time you reach the end of Brigham Young’s life, he’s already recommending in 1877 as a part of his priesthood reorganization, Brigham Young is recommending that wherever possible, that every young man should be ordained to at least one Aaronic Priesthood office for that time where they’re growing and preparing for adulthood. And he leaves that up to the discretion of the local church leaders.
We still don’t have a sense of this idea of priesthood advancement that we have today where you move from office to office as you grow, but we’ve affected this first change, which is we’re going to start ordaining younger men to the priesthood and youth.
Spencer: President Joseph F. Smith continued the inclusion of young men in priesthood quorums but added some new reforms, as well. Under his leadership in the early twentieth century, priesthood ordination for young men and their movement from one quorum to another was instituted in the church. They were ordained deacons at age twelve, a teacher at age fifteen, and a priest at age eighteen, with the hope that they would be prepared for ordination to the Melchizedek Priesthood and missionary service at age 21.
Matthew: And, of course, those ages have continued to change over time. And we move from twelve, fifteen, eighteen, twenty-one to, by the 1950s it’s twelve, fourteen, sixteen for those Aaronic Priesthood offices. And then, as we know and have experienced in our living memory, there have been ongoing changes to that as recently as under President Nelson’s direction when now most young men are likely ordained at the ages of eleven, thirteen, and fifteen at the beginning of the year in which they turn twelve, fourteen, and sixteen. And so, that’s something that continues to change, and it just goes back to this idea that the only constant is change and the idea of continuing revelation, which is fundamental to Latter-day Saint theology and is the part of our theology that helps us grapple with and make sense of change in the church over time. And the church can be responsive to needs, can be responsive to changes in the culture and the growth of the church under that idea.
Spencer: While it is easy to pinpoint the origins for some changes to the priesthood organization, others are more difficult to identify. For instance, in the 1850s a major change occurred amid the ongoing social and political debates over race in the United States. This change restricted Black men from receiving the priesthood and Black men and women from receiving all the ordinances of the temple.
A lot of church members are aware of the priesthood and temple restrictions of the past but are unaware of how they came to be—and of how they ended. Now, I think it worth mentioning here that we will not dive into every issue concerning race and the church—past or present—but in this podcast about the restoration of the priesthood and the development of priesthood organization, we want to examine this component of the church’s history.
As mentioned in the previous episode, a few Black men were ordained to priesthood offices during Joseph Smith’s lifetime. One of these ordinations was authorized by Joseph Smith himself. And these men continued to serve in good standing after Joseph Smith’s death. Consider one story from 1847. A Black Latter-day Saint named William McCary complained to Brigham Young and other church leaders that he was not being treated fairly because of his race. In the conversations that followed, Brigham Young quoted a verse from the Acts chapter 17, that God “hath made of one blood all nations of men.” Brigham Young also pointed to another Black Latter-day Saint named Q. Walker Lewis, who was then living in Massachusetts, and described him as one of the best Elders in the church.
But within a few years, Brigham Young began to introduce a racial restriction on priesthood ordination. There was no recorded revelation on the matter such as those found in the Doctrine and Covenants. What we know is that the restriction was made public amid political and social debates occurring throughout the United States in the 1850s, including in the Utah Territory.
In 1852, the territorial legislature was debating a bill which would define the relationship between those who were enslaved and their enslavers in Utah. Most Latter-day Saints had been from the northern United States, where slavery was illegal, but a small number were from the South and brought slaves with them to Utah Territory. It was in the context of this debate that Brigham Young first spoke publicly about the racial restriction on priesthood ordination. The reasoning he gave for the restriction was influenced by an idea on race in the broader Judeo-Christian tradition, an idea that predated the founding of the church in 1830 but still influenced some Latter-day Saints at this time. The idea was that God had cursed Cain, one of the sons of Adam and Eve, with black skin after Cain had killed his brother, Abel, and that people of Black African descent were descended from Cain and inherited this curse. Unlike some Americans in his day, Brigham Young did believe that all men and women, regardless of their race, were children of God. And he told the legislators that at some point the priesthood restriction would end.
And I’ll mention here that modern church leaders have since disavowed the curse of Cain as an explanation for the restriction.
But as common as Brigham Young’s views on the curse of Cain were among Christians in the 1850s, there were other Americans—and other Latter-day Saints of that time— who disagreed and spoke up about their disagreement. Orson Pratt argued against the bill. Pratt was an apostle in the church as well as a territorial legislator. He did not want slavery legalized in the territory and, to counter some of the claims of those in favor of the bill, he argued that curses were not multigenerational, that if God cursed a people, that curse would not be passed down to the next generation. Men would be punished for their own sins, and not for the sins of others.
In addition, several Black church members voiced their opposition to the new restrictions. To better understand the perspective of some of these Black Latter-day Saints, I spoke with historian Paul Reeve, the Simmons Professor of Mormon Studies at the University of Utah.
Paul: Unfortunately there aren’t a lot of records from the vantage point of Black Latter-Day Saints in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, but some do survive, and they give us an indication of how they are experiencing the racial restrictions and probably the two most well-known are Jane Elizabeth Manning James and Elijah Abel. And we know the most about them because the paper trail is quite rich. So, for example, Elijah Abel, whose priesthood was sanctioned by Joseph Smith, ordained in 1836. Joseph Smith signs his certificate.
Spencer: Elijah Abel had also received temple ordinances in the Kirtland Temple before moving to Nauvoo. But he had moved to Cincinnati before the temple in Nauvoo was complete, so he had not yet received the endowment and sealing ordinances. So, in the late 1870s, decades after the priesthood and temple restriction was instituted, Abel wanted to be sealed to his deceased wife. Brigham Young has since passed away, and John Taylor has succeeded him as president of the church.
Paul: And now he is desirous to be sealed to his wife and to receive his remaining temple rituals. And this opens an investigation. And John Taylor conducts that investigation, and he sends Joseph F. Smith to interview Elijah Abel, and Joseph F. Smith comes back to that meeting and says, Elijah Abel produced his certificates of ordination, claims that Joseph Smith sanctioned his priesthood, and in every way substantiates that Elijah Abel’s priesthood was valid.
So that gives us an indication then of how Elijah Abel is responding. He’s responding by saying, I want all the blessings available to every Latter-day Saint for myself, and my wife has passed away, and I want her sealed to me for eternity. And the determination of the council was that they would allow Elijah Abel’s priesthood to stand but not allow him temple admission, so he never does receive his sealing to his wife and his endowment. But the leadership will then call him on a third mission for the faith.
He will go east to Ohio on a preaching tour. He’s in his late seventies. He returns back in 1884. He dies within two weeks.
Spencer: As for Black women, the restrictions prevented them from receiving all of the ordinance of the temple. The life of Jane Manning James illustrates this. Jane joined the church in Connecticut in 1842 and soon thereafter moved to Nauvoo, Illinois, making much of the journey on foot. Joseph and Emma Smith frequently hired Jane to help them with work around their home, and she grew close to the Smith family. When Brigham Young led many of the Latter-day Saints to the Salt Lake Valley, Jane and her husband Isaac went too. Then, decades later, the priesthood and temple restrictions frustrated Jane.
Paul: Jane Manning James then starts to write appeals. Actually, the day that Elijah Abel passes away, she begins her lobbying effort for temple admission, and she persists for the rest of her life. She makes the case that Latter-day Saint scriptures as well as New Testament scriptures say that all of Abraham’s seed will be blessed, and she says, I want those blessings for myself.
Spencer: However, her request to receive all the ordinances of the temple were denied at that time.
Paul: She will do baptisms for deceased ancestors and relatives in the endowment house in the Logan Temple and in the Salt Lake Temple. But she’s told that that is as much of the temple that she can participate in, and she should just be satisfied with that. And she remains unsatisfied for the rest of her life.
Spencer: Jane Manning James passed away in 1908, faithful in the gospel. The stories of Elijah Abel and Jane Manning James demonstrate the challenges faced by faithful Black Latter-day Saints.
But in the second half of the twentieth century, things began to change. And, as Paul explains, the context for much of this change is the growth of the church throughout the world.
Paul: You have people in Nigeria, for example, who have encountered the Book of Mormon, encountered Latter-day Saint literature, who are basically calling themselves Latter-day Saints and asking for missionaries to be sent. You also have the church expanding in Brazil, a society that is heavily grounded in interracial mixing. And the church there has a variety of people of Black African descent who are practicing Latter-day Saints, and the church announces a temple in Brazil, and you have Latter-day Saint leaders who are flying to Brazil and meeting Black Latter-day Saints who are contributing to a building they know they will not be allowed to enter. And I think concern amongst the Latter-day Saint leaders is not how will we keep them out, but what can we do to let them in?
Spencer: Among the Black Latter-day Saints that church leaders were meeting in Brazil were members of the Martins family of Rio de Janeiro. The Martins family joined the church in 1972. Marcus Martins was thirteen at that time. Today, he is a professor of religion at Brigham Young University-Hawaii. I called Marcus on the phone, and we talked about his experiences. He was clear from the outset that he spoke of his personal experiences alone, acknowledging that the experiences of other Black Latter-day Saints varied by place and other circumstances.
Marcus: First of all, we need to remember that Brazil has a very different racial environment when compared with the United States. Sure, it was one of the last places, probably the last country in the Western hemisphere to abolish slavery, and afterwards there were no Jim Crow-like laws in Brazil. And so, the experience of Black Brazilians, even though it’s marked by very subtle discrimination, is very, very different from those of African Americans. So, another aspect of that, number one, no Jim Crow-like laws, and number two is that still in Brazilian society class supersedes race. If a person is of a certain class, let’s say middle or upper-middle class, the person of color is treated somewhat differently than a person coming from more of a blue-collar background. The way the person speaks, the way the person dresses, all these are markers that will generate a different kind of treatment, a more acceptable treatment, and there will be only a few places where this person will not be welcomed, but elsewhere, everything would be fine.
Spencer: In the Spring of 1972, the Martins family first attended the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Marcus: We went to a sacrament meeting, which of course in those days was in the afternoon, and we recognized people who lived in our neighborhood, and so we were very well received. A number of them knew my family, knew that my father was an executive in the national oil company, Petrobras. And so my father already had a certain level of respectability in our community. And so, with all these things, when we started attending church, we were received very well. So, I did not have experiences in the church that would in any way be categorized as discriminatory or prejudicial towards me or my family.
Spencer: I asked Marcus about the extent to which he and his family were aware of the priesthood and temple restrictions in place at that time.
Marcus: The full-time missionaries in those days had a special lesson—we used to call them discussions—it was the seventh discussion, and that dealt with the temple and priesthood restriction.
And so, as far as priesthood restriction then, well, the missionaries taught that seventh lesson to us. At that point, we already had made up our minds that we were going to be baptized, in fact, I remember that I was the first one to express that vocally in my home. I told my parents, “look I don’t know about you but I want to be a member of this church, I want to be baptized.” And they were very relieved because they had already decided to be baptized but they were kind of unsure how to break the news to me. So, it was a happy moment there.
At that point, we had already received all the lessons. We already had made our individual decisions to be baptized. But looking in retrospect, I would say that we had the beginning already, enough of a testimony to say, “Well, everything the missionaries taught to us so far made sense, and we felt it was true. So, this must be true as well. And so, if that’s the price we’ll have to pay for membership in this church, we’ll pay the price.”
And so, I cannot say that I was happy with the prevailing notion back then that somehow, I would have been less valiant in the preexistence and that Cain’s curse was befalling me thousands of years. I was not happy with that. But I accepted it on faith and said, “Okay, so be it.”
Although I kind of had a sense of, look, how come I’m so religious? I grew up in a very religious family. My grandmothers and my grandparents and my parents taught me so many great values including religious faith. And I said: “How come here we’re so religious, and in the presence of God, I would have been less than that?” But I said, “Okay, well, the missionaries said it was so, okay fine. And so, that was pretty much the way we accommodated in our minds the notion of, okay, there will be some restrictions on our activity in the church. Well we’re fine with that.”
Spencer: It was faith that moved the Martins to join the church. But Marcus explained that the fellowship he and his family received from church members helped as well.
Marcus: Because we had been so well received in the church, and I’m speaking for myself here, the way the youth received me. When my father would park our car in the street in front of the church, which in those days was just an old house belonged to the church, but it was an old house. When we would enter the gate of the front yard of that property, there would be people, including youth, who would come out to greet us. They would not even wait for us to get to the house. They would come in our direction and greet us. And so, priesthood restriction, yeah, okay, there was going to be priesthood restriction. But we had not seen any evidence that a priesthood restriction would restrict us from fellowship. And so, fellowship was good enough.
Spencer: It wasn’t long after the Martins family’s baptism that they began to become acquainted from church leaders traveling to Brazil.
Marcus: My father met President Kimball back in 1973 when President Kimball was still president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. It was a few months before President Harold B. Lee passed away. He was on an extended layover in Rio De Janeiro. And so, they made arrangements for President Kimball then to have a special fireside in the middle of the week with the members in Rio.
So at that fireside, they said, “President Kimball, we have a brother here that maybe you might want to meet—and it’s Helvecio Martins.” And so, that’s when they had their first encounter. And that’s when President Spencer W. Kimball famously told my father that the key for him was, depending on how you translate the word, it’s either faithfulness or fidelity. My father thought that the word meant fidelity, but it could be faith. Whatever it is, that’s what transpired.
I also met President Kimball, not something faith-promoting, but I was singing in the choir. And after the fireside, I went to the hallway to get a sip of water in the water fountain, and the door opened behind me, was one of the stake offices, and when I turned President Kimball was right in front of me, and I didn’t know what to say, but we noticed that we were wearing ties, burgundy ties, same color. And I kind of pointed to his tie, and he laughed, and we had that little brief moment. So, President Spencer W. Kimball was not a stranger to us who was way out there in Salt Lake City. No, he was somebody we had met personally whose personal warmth we had felt, both my father who talked to him, and me who had that funny exchange with him in the hallway in my stake center.
Over the years, the ensuing years, when President Kimball became President of the church in ’73, every time a general authority would be sent to preside at a stake conference in Rio, he always instructed these brothers to interview my father. That’s when my father met then Elder James E. Faust who was a Seventy at the time. So, they would come to Rio de Janeiro with instructions to visit and interview Brother Helvecio Martins, and they did.
Spencer: Then, in 1976, Marcus’s father took on a new role for the church in Brazil.
Marcus: The Sao Paulo Temple was announced in 1975, and the cornerstone ceremony took place in 1977. And an interesting thing was that my father was called to be the chair of the Public Affairs Committee for the dedication of the temple. Now, observe this was 1976. So, at that point, there was absolutely no sign that we would be allowed in that temple, and yet he was called to be the chair of the Public Affairs Committee for the dedication, which meant that he was the one contacting the press, fielding questions, which he did.
And so, on the cornerstone ceremony was about a year before the dedication in those days, President Kimball called my father once again for a nice old chat. I was not there, but I heard accounts from people who were there. President Kimball was on this makeshift platform in front of the temple, which was still in construction, and he beckoned to my father. My father was talking to some of the reporters a ways behind the congregation, and of course my father thought that “It cannot be with me.” But then President Kimball sent Elder James E. Faust to call my father and Elder Faust went, “Helvecio, President Kimball would like to have a word with you.”
So, my father went and sat on the stand. President Kimball had him sit next to him on the stand. And what President Kimball said was, “Do you remember what I told you when we first met years ago?” And my father said, “Yes, I remember about being faithful.” Then he repeated, “Just remain faithful and you will receive all the blessings.” And, of course, my father related that to me when he came back to Rio.
Spencer: As all this was happening in Brazil, church leaders counseled together about the restriction. President Hugh B. Brown felt it could be lifted as a matter of church policy, but President David O. McKay insisted they needed to seek revelation. He prayed but felt the time was not right.
When Spencer W. Kimball became president of the church in the 1970s, he pondered the question deeply. Church leaders had received letters from Black men and women in West Africa desperate to have the church established there, something that could only be accomplished with ordained local leaders. Meanwhile, research into the history of the restriction showed that Black men had been ordained during Joseph Smith’s lifetime, and that Brigham Young and other church leaders had foreseen a day when the restriction would be lifted.
President Kimball began to pray earnestly and often for the Lord’s direction on this matter. One day in June 1978, he invited the other members of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles to join him in prayer in the upper room of the Salt Lake Temple. Gordon B. Hinckley, who in 1978 was a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, recalled that occasion.
Audio of President Gordon B. Hinckley: “The question of extending the blessings of the priesthood to those then under restriction had been on the minds of many of the Brethren over a period of years. It had repeatedly been brought up by Presidents of the Church. It had become a matter of particular concern to President Kimball.
Over a considerable period of time he had prayed concerning this serious and difficult question. He had spent many hours in that upper room in the temple by himself in prayer and meditation.
On this question he raised the question before his Brethren—his Counselors and the Apostles. Following this discussion we joined in prayer in the most sacred of circumstances. President Kimball himself was voice in that prayer. I do not recall the exact words which he spoke. But I do recall my own feelings and the nature of the expressions of my Brethren. There was a hallowed and sanctified atmosphere in the room. For me, it felt as if a conduit opened between the heavenly throng and the kneeling, pleading prophet of God who was joined by his Brethren. The Spirit of God was there. And by the power of the Holy Ghost there came to that prophet an assurance that the thing for which he prayed was right, that the time had come, and that now the wondrous blessings of the priesthood should be extended to worthy men everywhere regardless of lineage.
Every man in that circle, by the power of the Holy Ghost, knew the same thing.
It was a quiet and sublime occasion.”
Spencer: Church members around the world were thrilled to learn of the revelation when it was announced to the media. Later that year, in September 1978, President Kimball asked his counselor, President N. Eldon Tanner, to read a letter from the First Presidency to present the lifting of the temple and priesthood restrictions to a general conference of the church.
Audio of President N. Eldon Tanner: “As we have witnessed the expansion of the work of the Lord over the earth, we have been grateful that people of many nations have responded to the message of the restored gospel, and have joined the church in ever-increasing numbers. This, in turn, has inspired us with a desire to extend to every worthy member of the church all of the privileges and blessings which the gospel affords.
Aware of the promises made by the prophets and presidents of the church who have preceded us that at some time, in God’s eternal plan, all of our brethren who are worthy may receive the priesthood, and witnessing the faithfulness of those from whom the priesthood has been withheld, we have pleaded long and earnestly in behalf of these, our faithful brethren, spending many hours in the upper room of the temple supplicating the Lord for divine guidance.
He has heard our prayers, and by revelation has confirmed that the long promised day has come when every faithful, worthy man in the church may receive the holy priesthood, with power to exercise its divine authority, and enjoy with his loved ones every blessing that flows therefrom, including the blessings of the temple.”
Spencer: This was a watershed moment in the history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Many Black men and women joined the church in the months and years that followed. In African countries, the church started to grow rapidly. And many Black men who had been faithful members of the church for years were finally able to receive the priesthood and many Black men and women were finally able to receive all the ordinances of the temple. Paul Reeve mentioned a couple of examples in our conversation:
Paul: Novella Sargent Gibson in Virginia at the turn the twentieth century, and Fridell McCleesha McGee Baloo, in Mississippi, also at the turn of the twentieth century. Both of them baptized in a creek outside their tiny rural villages, one in Virginia and one in Mississippi. And both of them in the Washington, D.C. temple within a month of the June 1978 revelation. Both of them remained faithful for over sixty years, not being allowed into the temple, and within a month they are both in the Washington, D.C. temple finally realizing the full blessings of their faith after over sixty years. They are both in their eighties by the time they were allowed into a Latter-day Saint temple.
Spencer: As for the Martins family in Brazil, Marcus’s father Helvecio received the priesthood and served as a bishop, a stake president, and a mission president before being called to the Second Quorum of the Seventy in 1990, the first general authority of Black ancestry. And Marcus, shortly after President’s Kimball announcement, similarly received the priesthood and became the first Latter-day Saint of Black ancestry to serve a mission in the twentieth century.
The revelation lifting the restriction had a profound effect on the church’s growth in many parts of the world, especially Africa and Brazil. Marcus Martins’ story is one of many, each with its own challenges and gains. The experiences of Black church members both before and after 1978 varied by place and circumstances. Time does not allow us to delve into them all here. But many accounts have been preserved in different formats and are available to researchers through the Church History Library in Salt Lake City.
I also think that this is a good place to mention that if you are interested in learning more about the history of the priesthood and temple restrictions, the church published an essay on the subject, titled “Race and the Priesthood,” that is available on the church’s website or in the Gospel Library app. There is a lot of good historical information in that essay and it includes an important statement on theories once taught by some individuals in the church. It states:
“Today, the Church disavows the theories advanced in the past that black skin is a sign of divine disfavor or curse, or that it reflects unrighteous actions in a premortal life; that mixed-race marriages are a sin; or that blacks or people of any other race or ethnicity are inferior in any way to anyone else. Church leaders today unequivocally condemn all racism, past and present, in any form.”
Spencer: During a conference of the church in 1831, when the membership of the church was only a few thousand people, Joseph Smith presented a revelation to those assembled. In that revelation, the Lord called the church a “living church.” It’s a phrase—and a theological idea—that Latter-day Saints refer to frequently when speaking of their church. The applications of the phrase vary, too. And it seems, where the history of the priesthood restoration is concerned, the idea of a “living church” includes the notion that the priesthood organization can be adjusted at any given time based on revelation to the prophets and apostles who lead the church as they seek to understand God’s will and timing. The authority and offices of the priesthood remain largely consistent with those of Joseph Smith’s day, but the way that authority and those offices are organized is flexible.
Still, the history of Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowdery, and the angelic visitations that commenced the restoration of the priesthood remain a guiding influence in how Latter-day Saints understand priesthood authority. And it’s a history that they continue to commemorate and cherish. We’ll talk about the priesthood restoration in the collective memory of the Latter-day Saints in the next—and final—episode of The Priesthood Restored: A Joseph Smith Papers Podcast.