Mormons mark '78 end of ban on black priests

Halt of inexplicable policy hasn't boosted membership

Denver Post/December 21, 2003
By Eric Gorski

On a June day in 1989, Jesse Lee Thomas Jr., a sharecropper's son and former Baptist preacher, was baptized into the Mormon faith. He dressed in all white to symbolize purity.

Soon afterward, Thomas was ordained into the Mormon priesthood, starting on a path that led to several leadership positions in his northeast Denver ward, or church.

Until the announcement 25 years ago today of a revelation from God, a black man never would have been able to reach such heights in the Mormon Church.

For reasons that remain murky, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or Mormon Church, barred blacks of African lineage from joining the priesthood for more than a century.

The church has no clergy. Males 12 and older are eligible for the lay priesthood. The position carries the authority to bless, baptize and teach, among other things.

As the church marks the anniversary of the revelation that lifted the ban, debate continues about what took so long, and about the timing of the doctrinal flip-flop.

The revelation's legacy seems evident to hundreds of thousands of Mormon converts in Africa and South America. In Brazil alone, the church says, membership grew from 40,000 in 1970 to 840,000 in 2002.

But in the United States, scholars say, black Mormons remain few and the church has struggled to retain black members.

The Mormon Church didn't always put restrictions on black involvement. Joseph Smith, who founded the faith in 1820 in upstate New York, was present at meetings where blacks were ordained, said Armand Mauss, a professor emeritus of sociology and religious studies at Washington State University who has studied the subject.

Smith's successor, Brigham Young, instituted the ban. At the time, the country was divided over race issues and many religious institutions discriminated against blacks, prompting the formation of black denominations, which started seminaries.

Mormons of the era justified the ban by saying blacks "bore the mark of Cain," the oldest son of Adam and Eve, who killed his brother, Abel. Connecting the black race and Cain is folklore that dates to the Middle Ages, said Mauss, who is an active Mormon.

The ban was not much of an issue in this country until the 1960s. Suddenly, cities refused to book the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and major universities stopped playing sports against church-owned Brigham Young University.

The priesthood policy began to interfere with the church's missionary zeal. An effort to dispatch Mormon missionaries to Nigeria was rebuffed in 1963 when authorities there learned of the ban and refused to issue visas, Mauss said.

In the early 1970s, the church began more aggressively eyeing potential growth areas, including Brazil, a racially mixed country with a large black population.

According to Mormon doctrine, God continues to provide revelations on Earth. On June 9, 1978, then-church president Spencer Kimball, who is considered to be a prophet, announced the revelation.

Current church president Gordon Hinckley, who as a high church official in 1978 was present during the priesthood revelation, described the event in a 1988 magazine article: "No voice audible to our physical ears was heard. But the voice of the Spirit whispered with certainty into our minds and our very souls. & All of us knew that the time had come for a change and that the decision had come from the heavens."

Mauss said revelations are not bolts out of the blue. In Mormonism, the Lord is petitioned about certain subjects and answers the requests, so it's more a conversation between humans and God.

The timing seemed all too convenient to many outside observers. The church, after all, disavowed polygamy in 1890 when Utah's statehood depended on it.

"The cynical way is to say revelation is a convenient way to solve any problem Mormons run into," said O. Kendall White, a professor at Washington and Lee University in Virginia who has written articles on blacks and Mormonism. "The other reading is to recognize it as a combination of divine and human sources. I see it as further accommodation to American society and the pressures that existed in society."

Among the first black men to join the priesthood was Joseph Freeman, a convert then living in Hawaii.

The change meant Freeman, who previously could only be civilly married by the church, could take part in a holy ordinance that "sealed" him together with his wife and children for all eternity.

Freeman moved to Denver in 1986 and oversaw maintenance of the Denver Temple in Centennial for 15 years before moving to Salt Lake City two years ago.

"You cannot feel 100 percent equal when you can't participate fully," said Freeman, 49, who will give the invocation today at a Salt Lake City celebration organized by the Genesis Group, a black Mormon group under the official church umbrella. "That time has changed, just as slavery and other civil rights issues have passed."

The church does not track membership by race. Mauss estimates the U.S. black Mormon population at a few thousand, "certainly not anywhere near 10,000."

Mauss said no more than one-third of black members in the U.S. stay with the church more than five years, in part because after learning the history of the ban, many leave.

Retention is also a problem because blacks sometimes are hassled by other blacks about joining, and some Mormons "continue to fall back on the folklore of the past" to explain why the ban was ever adopted, Mauss said.

Blacks who have joined and stayed with the church view the priesthood ban as just another example of white oppression, and although the church took longer than other institutions to change, they think it's part of the past and time to move on, Mauss said.

Some observers said they see great potential for black American Mormon growth. White said he sees attraction in the faith's strong family emphasis and its system that gives members leadership opportunities.

Jesse Thomas felt those things and more. He was introduced to the faith by a co-worker.

He and his wife, who is white, found in the Mormon Church an institution that answered their questions about the afterlife and welcomed them and their three children.

Thomas said the ordination ban wasn't much of an issue for him because it had been gone 11 years when he joined the church.

He learned of the history just before his baptism and it didn't change his mind. He said God moves in ways that people often don't understand, and it was God's place to decide when it was time.

"There are some (blacks) who are more dogmatic, who feel, 'How could you, with that history?"' Thomas said. "But African-Americans, unless you are an ideologue, tend to be an accepting people. & No one can convince me the church is racist or segregationist."

Thomas worked in health care for 20 years and ran several HMOs. He sits on three state boards and advocates on health, education and housing.

He hosts and produces a local television show, "Citizen Thomas." Thomas ran unsuccessfully as a Republican to unseat Democrat Diana DeGette in Colorado's 1st Congressional District in 2000. He failed this year in a bid to become Denver auditor.

Next year, Thomas' son, Julian, will turn 12. At the family's ward house, Jesse Thomas will lay hands on his son's head and usher him into the Mormon priesthood.

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