30 years since blacks given the priesthood

Associated Press/June 7, 2008

Salt Lake City - Thirty years have passed, but Heber G. Wolsey still cries when he recalls the day the Mormon church abandoned a policy that had kept black men out of the priesthood. "It was one of the greatest days of my life," said Wolsey, who was head of public affairs at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

On June 8, 1978, Wolsey was called to meet with N. Eldon Tanner, a member of the church's First Presidency, in a tunnel beneath the Salt Lake City Temple.

He was handed a slip of paper: "The long-promised day has come when every faithful, worthy man in the church may receive the holy priesthood ... without regard for race or color."

"I started to bawl," Wolsey recalled, his eyes again welling with tears. "It's something we'd all been praying for a long, long time."

Latter-day Saints will mark the 30th anniversary Sunday with an evening celebration of words and music in the Salt Lake City Tabernacle.

Heralded as a revelation from God to church President Spencer W. Kimball, the four-paragraph statement gave blacks full membership in the church for the first time after nearly 130 years.

Some say it was the most significant change in church policy since Mormons abandoned polygamy in 1890.

Unlike other religions, the Mormon priesthood is not a set of trained clerics. It is a lay status granted to virtually every Mormon male at age 12, allowing them to bestow blessings and hold certain church callings. Until 1978, black men could attend priesthood meetings but could not pass sacraments or give blessings, even for their own families. They could not enter LDS temples for sacred ceremonies, including marriage.

"It left you on the outside," said Darius A. Gray, who is black and joined the church as a young man in 1964.

Gray said he learned about the restriction the day before his baptism. He was raised to value his race, and the policy went against that. But prayer and study had left him with a belief in the church that he couldn't ignore.

"So you go forward and walk through the darkness in faith," he said. "I never knew if the restriction was of God, or if it was of man, if it was just or unjust."

Early teachings and sermons by church founder Joseph Smith don't reflect a racist stance. Blacks were not denied membership, baptism or the priesthood under his leadership. Smith ordained the former slave Elijah Able to the priesthood in 1836 and sent him on a proselytizing mission.

But after Smith's death, Brigham Young reversed the policy, declaring in 1852 that blacks were the unworthy descendants of Cain and could not hold the priesthood, Mormon historian Newell Bringhurst said

Although Young's policy was never considered doctrine, his teachings left the church so entrenched that it was unable to change, even during the civil-rights era of the 1960s and despite pressure from inside and outside the faith, Bringhurst said.

"It's a tragedy in a way," said Bringhurst, who left the LDS Church partly because of its stance on blacks. "There was this missed opportunity in the 1960s where they could have easily changed."

Labeled as racist, the church suffered years of repeated drumming in the news media and from people angered by the divisive policy, Wolsey said.

Mormons are not the only group to have excluded blacks or to explain racial origins in pejorative terms.

Early Syriac Christians, for example, used rabbinical texts to conclude that black skin arises from the biblical curse of Cain. That notion carried down through the centuries as far as the 18th century in Europe and America.

Moreover, many early Protestant groups in America thought that slavery was a continuation of God's curse, and in the 19th and early 20th centuries Southern Baptists taught that there was a separate heaven for blacks and whites. The Southern Baptist Convention did not officially renounce racism until 1995.

Prior to 1978, Wolsey and Gray spent nearly five years touring the country to answer questions about the church's position during meetings that often would spark angry, contentious words.

"I said, 'I am not a racist. I don't have any racial feelings against the blacks at all. I have a part of my belief that says the blacks can't hold the priesthood,"' Wolsey said. "Women can't hold the priesthood either; children can't. But I said I believe in the church, so I accept it."

Church statisticians don't track membership by race, but scholars believe there were less than 3,000 black Mormons in 1978.

Since then, the church has expanded its missionary work in predominantly black nations, including the Caribbean, South America and Africa, where it now claims more than 250,000 members out of 13.1 million worldwide.

There are no blacks in the senior leadership tiers of the Salt Lake City-based church. A black Brazilian, Helvecio Martins, was a member of the Second Quorum of Seventy from 1990-95. He died in 2005.

In Africa, more than 2,000 men serve in local and regional leadership posts, spokeswoman Kim Farah said.

Gray and Wolsey said the change in 1978 was good for all members of the church, not just for blacks.

"It removed an impediment that stood between the brotherhood and sisterhood that needed to be removed," Gray said. "It has allowed blacks and whites - not just blacks - to be more open about these issues, to embrace one another and to be the Christians that God intended us to be."

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