Spencer W. Kimball on Ban

Spencer W. Kimball on the "Possible Error"

So, Joseph Smith gives the priesthood to blacks. Brigham Young bans blacks. Each and every single one of the 10 prophets from Brigham Young to Harold B. Lee supported what Spencer W. Kimball referred to as a “possible error” (Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, p.448-449).

CES Letter, Page 65

The CES Letter takes Spencer W. Kimball’s quote out of context. In the same breath, Kimball chastises agitators “who would force the issue. . .cheapen the issue and certainly bring into contempt the sacred principle of revelation and divine authority.”

Here, The CES Letter plagiarizes the lyrics from “I Believe,” a song from the Book of Mormon Musical (“I believe that in 1978 God changed his mind about black people”). 

The CES Letter also seems to be unaware of the lack of consensus among Church leaders about the restriction, with each generation of leaders accepting different rationales for the restriction. 

Prior to 1847, Brigham Young accepted African-Americans as priesthood holders. Then, William (Warner) McCary, a black Mormon, complained to President Young regarding the way he was sometimes treated among the Saints intimating that his skin color was a factor: “I am not a President, or a leader of the people” McCary lamented, but merely a “common brother,” a fact that he said was true “because I am a little shade darker.” Brigham Young responded saying: “We dont care about the color.” And insisted, “we have one of the best Elders, an African in Lowell, [Massachusetts]—a barber,” which was a reference to Q. Walker Lewis, a barber, abolitionist, and leader in the black community there. Brigham was fully aware of Lewis’s status as a black man and priesthood holder and favourably referred to that status in his interview with McCary. Brigham Young offered Lewis as evidence that even black men were welcome and eligible for the priesthood in Mormonism.

Brigham Young gave two speeches to the Utah Territorial legislature in 1852. After the second, he articulated for the first time a restriction of the priesthood by a Mormon prophet-president. His declarations created controversy among other Church leaders who eventually accepted the position.

By the late nineteenth century, LDS leaders were unwilling to violate policies implement by Brigham Young and sometimes mistakenly remembered it had begun with Joseph Smith. By 1908, Joseph F. Smith solidified the priesthood and temple restrictions by advancing a position that failed to remember Elijah Abel, a black priesthood holder, and supported a white priesthood from the beginning.

This position became entrenched among leaders so that by 1949 the First Presidency declared that the restriction was “always” in place: “The attitude of the Church with reference to Negroes remains as it has always stood. It is not a matter of the declaration of a policy but of direct commandment from the Lord.” Nothing was said of the original black priesthood holders.

Church leaders entertained the possibility of changing the ban. President David O. McKay pushed for reform on racial matters, but he was convinced that it would take a revelation to overturn the ban. Hugh B. Brown, his counsellor in the First Presidency, believed otherwise reasoning that because there was no revelation which began the ban, no revelation was needed to end it.

As early as 1963, however, Apostle Spencer W. Kimball signaled an open attitude for change: “The doctrine or policy has not varied in my memory,” Kimball acknowledged, “I know it could. I know the Lord could change his policy and release the ban and forgive the possible error which brought about the deprivation.”  That forgiveness ultimately came with Kimball at the helm in 1978.

President Hinckley, second counselor in the First Presidency recalled his experience in 1978:

On this occasion [June 1, 1978] President Kimball 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 that 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 throne 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.

There was not the sound "as of a rushing mighty wind," there were not "cloven tongues like as of fire (Acts 2:2-3) as there had been on the Day of Pentecost. But there was a Pentecostal spirit, for the Holy Ghost was there.

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.

It was for us, at least for me personally, as I imagine it was with Enos, who said concerning his remarkable experience, "And while I was thus struggling in the spirit, behold, the voice of the Lord came into my mind." (Enos 1:10.)

So it was on that memorable June 1, 1978. We left that meeting subdued and reverent and joyful. Not one of us who was present on that occasion was ever quite the same after that. Nor has the Church been quite the same.

All of us knew that the time had come for a change and that the decision had come from the heavens. The answer was clear. There was perfect unity among us in our experience and in our understanding.