Sunday, February 13, 2011

Blacks and the Priesthood

Much has been made over the years of the Church's stance of withholding priesthood blessings from the Blacks. I have been asked by many people why Harold B. Lee was so "obstinate" in his opposition about extending those blessings. That's a perception that is wholly inaccurate. What is accurate is that we are led by living prophets imbued with the spirit of revelation from the Lord Jesus Christ, who lives and directs the decisions made in the Church.

I have written about this topic before, but it seems there are never enough words to fully describe the times. Many who would revise the history of the sixties if they could will not now admit that racism was an ugly and unrelenting chapter in American history, and the Church was routinely singled out and thrown into the political witches' brew as a stereotypical example of it. For me, however, it was always a matter of pending revelation rather than policy, anchored in my belief in living prophets.

President Harold B. Lee
President Harold B. Lee said it this way: "Now I want to impress this upon you. Someone has said it this way, and I believe it to be absolutely true: 'That person is not truly converted until he sees the power of God resting upon the leaders of this church, and until it goes down into his heart like fire.' Until the members of this church have that conviction that they are being led in the right way, and they have a conviction that these men of God are men who are inspired and have been properly appointed by the hand of God, they are not truly converted." ("The Strength of the Priesthood," Ensign, July 1972, 102).

A year later he would say: "And so I come to you today, with no shadow of doubting in my mind that I know the reality of the person who is presiding over this church, our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ. I know that he is. I know that he is closer to us than many times we have any idea. They are not an absentee Father and Lord. They are concerned about us, helping to prepare us for the advent of the Savior, whose coming certainly isn’t too far away because of the signs that are becoming apparent." ("Stand Ye in Holy Places," Ensign 1973, 121).

Many members of the Church, and especially those outside the Church who are prone to accepting criticism directed at the Brethren, fail to understand a basic principle of how the Church is governed. The decision making among Apostles does not work as it does in business. One Apostle does not "lobby" a position and seek to gather votes among his peers on the "Board of Directors" until he has enough of the majority to work his will. The living Apostles move forward together as one body unanimously, including the Quorum of the Twelve and the First Presidency, or not at all. Of necessity and by design decision making among the Brethren is often slow, deliberative, thorough, and comes through individual revelation one by one until there is perfect harmony and unity.

We have no finer illustration of this process than in the revelation that extended the priesthood blessings to the Blacks universally and without any restrictions. We may rest assured for those reasons, as they wait upon the Lord for inspiration to move ahead, mistakes are seldom made.

Discussions among the Twelve and the First Presidency about the extension of the priesthood blessings dated back into the early days of President David O. McKay's administration, and continued in earnest among the Brethren until the inspiration finally distilled upon President Spencer W. Kimball, who was sustained by all his brethren in the revelation that eventually came.

President Spencer W. Kimball
Harold B. Lee's personal copies of his scriptures are filled with transcribed minutes of meetings among the Twelve and the First Presidency on this topic. It was a topic with which he was intimately familiar, sensitive and, it appears from the number of entries, all-consuming. Toward the end of his life, credible death threats against him became a growing concern and prompted the beefing up of Church security. He felt as President Kimball did, who said, "I told the Lord if it wasn't right, if He didn't want this change to come into the Church, that I would be true to it all the rest of my life and I'd fight the world against it. I would be loyal and true to the program if that's what He wanted." (Quoted by Edward L. Kimball in This People, Summer 1988, 22).

For President Lee and for President Kimball, it was not a matter of "if" -- only "when" -- the Lord would give His revelatory sanction to lift the ban. President Lee waited upon the Lord, believing the matter was out of his hands, as the Church's critics continued their withering attacks against him and the Church. Despite what others outside that circle of living Apostles have said about it, rest assured the principals involved got it right, precisely at the time the Church and the Blacks were prepared to receive those priesthood blessings.

President David O. McKay
President McKay had first become aware of the growing concern in South Africa, then Brazil. It was a matter over which the Brethren had pondered for many, many years. Under President Kimball's administration near 10,000 faithful native Africans had joined the Church in several separate congregations as the fulness of the gospel began to illuminate that benighted continent. Each hoped and prayed they may someday receive the priesthood. But like their leaders in Salt Lake City, they were compelled to wait patiently upon the Lord for that day to come.

I have always loved the way it was described by Elder Bruce R. McConkie and President Gordon B. Hinckley, but President Boyd K. Packer also published his version in this way:

President Boyd K. Packer
At the same time the LDS edition of the scriptures was being prepared for publication another matter was weighing heavily upon the soul of one of the Lord's great watchmen, President Spencer W. Kimball. Other latter-day prophets had wrestled with the same dilemma: that of obeying the divine command to preach the gospel to every kindred, tongue, and people, while being keenly aware that, because of race, some of those people were denied the full blessings of the gospel -- that is, denied the priesthood and the temple ordinances. Thus these prophets had pleaded mightily with the Lord for answers to the problem, and none of them more intensely than President Kimball. Yet always the Spirit had indicated that the time had not yet come.

Now this prophet, small in physical stature but a spiritual giant, wrestled again, seeking and pleading in behalf of the faithful among all priesthood-denied people. Not only did he struggle, seek, and plead, but his brethren in the highest councils of the Church did so as well.

One day, during the Thursday temple meeting with his Counselors and the Twelve, President Kimball, who was pondering that matter, discussed it with his brethren. When it was Elder Packer's turn to speak, he read a scripture: "Verily, verily, I say unto you, that when I give a commandment to any of the sons of men to do a work unto my name, and those sons of men go with all their might and with all they have to perform that work, and cease not their diligence, and their enemies come upon them and hinder them from performing that work, behold, it behooveth me to require that work no more at the hands of those sons of men, but to accept of their offerings" (D&C 124:49).

A few days later President Kimball asked Brother Packer where he would be the next Saturday. Elder Packer told him he would be speaking Friday evening at the Dixie College baccalaureate but would return by plane early on Saturday.

"Will you come to my office?" the President asked.

"Of course," Elder Packer responded.

Upon his return about one o'clock on Saturday, Brother Packer went directly to the Church Office Building. The security officer on duty said that the President was at home and wished Elder Packer to call as soon as he came into the building.

Reaching President Kimball by phone, Elder Packer offered, "I'll come right up."

"No, I'll come down and meet you."

Arriving shortly after this, the President entered his office. Elder Packer recalls his saying that he had "this thing" on his mind and wanted to talk about it. "There was no need to explain what this thing was," Elder Packer recalled. "We both knew how it was weighing upon him.

"He handed me his scriptures and said he'd like me to read to him from the revelations. So we started with the one from D&C 124:49 that I had read in the temple. For a couple of hours we just moved back and forth through the Doctrine and Covenants, the Book of Mormon, and the Pearl of Great Price, and then talked about what we read.

"The spirit of revelation seemed to be brooding upon the prophet that day. He asked me, assuming that the revelation was to come, how it might best be announced to the Church, and asked that I put something in writing. This I did and handed it to him a day or two later. He had asked one or two of the others to do the same."

On Thursday, 8 June 1978, in the Salt Lake Temple, the revelation was reaffirmed when the First Presidency and the Twelve approved the announcement that was to go out to the world. It was further reaffirmed in the temple on 9 June 1978 by all of the General Authorities available. They too unanimously approved the announcement.

The long-sought pronouncement that "all worthy male members of the Church may be ordained to the priesthood without regard for race or color" had become official. (Doctrine and Covenants, Official Declaration-2, 293-94).

On 30 September 1978, at general conference, the assembled Saints voted unanimously to sustain the motion. (Ibid.)

Those of the Lord's watchmen who were present at those historic times will recall and have borne witness to the Spirit of revelation that attended them, and each has expressed gratitude for being part of the momentous experience. And none of the Twelve was more grateful for that day than Elder Boyd K. Packer. (Boyd K. Packer: A Watchman on the Tower, Lucille C. Tate, 225-27, emphasis mine).

Elder Bruce R. McConkie
Elder Bruce R. McConkie, who had earlier stated categorically that the Blacks would never receive the priesthood in this life, and was prepared to defend that position "until the day I die," would then say after the revelation came:

There are statements in our literature by the early brethren that we have interpreted to mean that the Negroes would not receive the priesthood in mortality. I have said the same things, and people write me letters and say, "You said such and such, and how is it now that we do such and such?" And all I can say to that is that it is time disbelieving people repented and got in line and believed in a living, modern prophet. Forget everything that I have said, or what President Brigham Young or President George Q. Cannon or whosoever has said in days past, that is contrary to the present revelation. We spoke with a limited understanding and without the light and knowledge that now has come into the world.

We get our truth and our light line upon line and precept upon precept. We have now had added a new flood of intelligence and light on this particular subject, and it erases all the darkness and all the views and all the thoughts of the past. They don't matter any more.

It doesn't make a particle of difference what anybody ever said about the Negro matter before the first day of June 1978. It is a new day and a new arrangement, and the Lord has now given the revelation that sheds light out into the world on this subject. (Priesthood, 131-32, emphasis mine).

Elder McConkie bore his testimony of that sacred occasion as follows:

The Spirit of the Lord rested mightily upon us all; we felt something akin to what happened on the day of Pentecost and at the dedication of the Kirtland Temple. From the midst of eternity, the voice of God, conveyed by the power of the Spirit, spoke to his prophet. The message was that the time had now come to offer the fulness of the everlasting gospel, including celestial marriage, and the priesthood, and the blessings of the temple, to all men, without reference to race or color, solely on the basis of personal worthiness. And we all heard the same voice, received the same message, and became personal witnesses that the word received was the mind and will and voice of the Lord. . . .

In the days that followed the receipt of the new revelation, President Kimball and President Ezra Taft Benson — the senior and most spiritually experienced ones among us — both said, expressing the feelings of us all, that neither of them had ever experienced anything of such spiritual magnitude and power as was poured out upon the Presidency and the Twelve that day in the upper room in the house of the Lord. And of it I say: It is true; I was there; I heard the voice; and the Lord be praised that it has come to pass in our day. ("The New Revelation on Priesthood," in Priesthood, Salt Lake City, Deseret Book, 1981, 128).

President Gordon B. Hinckley
President Gordon B. Hinckley also was present that glorious day. In a talk given May 15, 1988, in a Churchwide fireside commemorating the restoration of the priesthood, he spoke movingly about the experience. Said he:

The Spirit of God was there. And by the power of the Holy Ghost there came to [President Kimball] 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 present. 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. (Ensign, October 1988, 70).

When one reads those accounts, it seems reasonable that we may glimpse into the culminating process of many, many years as the living Apostles wrestled mightily and waited patiently upon the Lord for the time to come. Premature attempts would have worked the will of men in opposition to the manifest will of the Father and the Son. Through the long years of waiting, the voice was heard that day. It was the voice of the Spirit, inaudible to physical ears but indelibly imprinted into the minds and souls of those present. It was with them as with the Nephite prophet Enos, who recorded: "And while I was thus struggling in the spirit, behold, the voice of the Lord came into my mind." (Enos 1:10). It is also clear that the event had a profound, lasting effect on all those involved.

Said President Hinckley: "Not one of us who was present on that occasion was ever quite the same after that."

And I would add, none of us was either.

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