Abide #24: Official Declaration Two
Spencer W. Kimball, his counselors, and their fellow apostles prayed about the revelation that Latter-day Saints have canonized as Official Declaration 2 in June 1978. They immediately let it be known that the Lord had told them that all worthy people, of any race, color, creed, or nationality, would be eligible for temple blessings and that men could be ordained. This lifted a racial restriction that had lasted for more than a century that denied ordination to men of Black African descent and the endowment and sealing ordinances to men, women, and children of Black African descent.
Importantly, President Kimball’s journey to receiving the revelation began decades earlier. Even as a boy he recognized how his neighbors treated Native Americans with distrust and disdain. He saw inequity and wanted to correct it. Although he did not know as a lad that he would receive a revelation with global consequences, it’s remarkable to me that something President Kimball noticed as a child would change The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ global trajectory.
My name is Joseph Stuart, I’m the public communications specialist at the Maxwell Institute. Janiece Johnson, is a Willes Center Research Associate at the Institute, and we will be discussing each week’s block of reading from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ “Come, Follow Me” curriculum. We aren’t here to present a lesson, but rather to hit on a few key themes from the scripture block that we believe will help fulfill the Maxwell Institute’s mission to inspire and fortify Latter-day Saints in their testimonies of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ and engages the world of religious ideas.”
Spencer W. Kimball, his counselors, and their fellow apostles prayed about the revelation that Latter-Day Saints have canonized as Official Declaration Two in June, 1978. They immediately let it be known that the Lord had told them that all worthy people of any race, color, creed or nationality would be eligible for temple blessings and that men could be ordained. This lifted a racial restriction that had lasted for more than a century that denied ordination to men of black African descent in the endowment and sealing ordinances to men, women, and children of black African descent. Importantly, President Kimball’s journey to receiving the revelation began decades earlier. Even as a boy, he recognized how his neighbors treated native Americans with distrust and disdain. He saw inequity and wanted to correct it. Although, he did not know as a lad that he would receive a revelation with global consequences. It’s remarkable to me that something president Kimball noticed as a child would change the church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints global trajectory. My name is Joseph Stuart. I am the Public Communications Specialist at the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship at Brigham Young University. Janiece Johnson, a Willis Center Research Associate at the Institute and I will be discussing each week’s block of reading from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints “Come, Follow Me” curriculum. We aren’t here to present a lesson, but rather hit on a few key themes from the scripture block that we believe will help fulfill the Maxwell Institute’s mission to inspire and fortify Latter-day Saints and their testimonies of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ and engage the world of religious ideas.
Joseph Stuart: Goodmorning. It’s a pleasure to be able to talk about Latter-Day Saint history and to talk about a revelation that means so much to me and to the wards and stakes that I have participated in.
Janiece Johnson: I’m glad that this Official Declaration gets its own episode because I think this is important if I feel like Come, Follow Me curriculum, I kind of wish this last part was spaced out a little bit more because there is so much important material that is crammed together all at the end of the year. And I hope that we can take the time that this requires. And sometimes that means wrestling with difficult things. As we talked about in our last episode, both Official Declaration #1 and Official Declaration #2 receive new introductions. In 2013, and they give us a little bit of the historical context that surrounds these declarations. And, Official Declaration #2 begins with the teaching of the Book of Mormon from Nephi, that all are elect unto God, including black and white, bond and free, male and female. And though this is the scriptural standard the actual practice of the Church has not always reached that scriptural standard.
Joseph Stuart: Right? We have to think, why was a revelation needed in the first place? And we can look back to 1852 when Brigham Young, speaking before the Utah State Territorial Government, declares no black person will hold the priesthood and that black people will not be able to enter into the temple to partake of ordinances that require ordination to, or the authority of the Melchizedek priesthood, namely the endowment or sealing ceremonies. And this happened in February 1852 and it’s easy to look back and say, “oh those were the times”, “that was just something that everyone had racist views back then”, but I think that is historically wrong. Not everyone held the view that black people were inferior in 1952.
Janiece Johnson: And even Brigham Young himself has transitions on this topic. There is a line in the introduction. So it’s as early in its history that church leaders stopped conferring the priesthood on black males of African descent and women of African descent were never allowed to participate in those temple endowment ceremonies. And then the line, “Church records offer no clear insight into the origin of this practice.” Now, this was written for the 2013 edition. History changes as we learn more, as we have more documents and have more access to the past. So some of this change may be over because we have learned a lot more through the historical scholarship that’s been done. But I also think about this in terms of Brigham Young. In 1847, he called Hugh Walker Lewis who was a barber and a revolutionist from Boston, Massachusetts who joins the church and he called him a “model elder”. And then by 1852, we have Brigham Young preaching, arguing that Utah should become a slave territory. And it is not that this is the only voice that is heard. Orson Pratt is arguing against Brigham Young and arguing for the abolition of slavery. And then we also have a middle of the road argument, kind of trying to make political peace taken by Orson Spencer. But this is not that everyone was racist. Brigham Young’s ideas certainly are reflected amongst many people during this period. But they are not the only ideas that are out there, and Orson Pratt is explicitly arguing against it.
Joseph Stuart: And that’s just important to remember. It’s also important to say that there doesn’t seem to be a firm entrenched policy about the place of people of black African descent in church records or decades after this. And you may wonder why we keep saying black African descent, it’s because it’s theologically assumed at this time by many, Protestants, Catholics, Latter-day Saints, Muslims, and others that people with black skin from Africa were somehow marked as inferior by God. Let me say that nothing could be further from the truth. This is racism that not only that the church rejects but that common sense and common morality reject.
Janiece Johnson: Brigham Young’s rationale is something that had been passed down. It began as early as the 5th and 6th century in Seria and Arminian Christianity. In America and Europe in the 19th century there were lots of people who held these same beliefs and it passes this curse. So if we go to Genesis 9, Ham seeks the nakedness of his father, Noah, and he tells his two brethren without. Now Biblical scholars interpret this in a number of different ways, but the result is that Noah curses Ham’s son, Canaan. And there is this idea that this curse is passed down through the flood. Now, if you’re reading the Biblical text, this doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t make sense! There’s nothing odd about this not making sense. This argument passes through all sorts of jumps and assumptions and trying to justify the degradation of other people, people of a different color.
Joseph Stuart: And I think this is crucial to remember too that in our lives, we all make justifications to treat others as inferior or ourselves as superior. And this is something that didn’t end in the 19th century, it is still alive and well today. And it’s why President Nelson, President Oaks, and many other church leaders and again, just people who follow church teachings work so hard to eradicate racism within our communities. It’s why the church works so closely with community groups, the NAACP, and also we may recall the “Be One” event that took place, and I would encourage everyone to look up, we will link in the show notes, but to look up the addresses that leaders of the church gave and to look at the music, and the art, and the theater that were performed the revelation received in 1978.
Janiece Johnson: In addition, we will also list in the show notes the link to the Race and the Priesthood Gospel Topic Essay, which we think is also essential reading here. And I just want to read one sentence from that. “The justifications for this priesthood and temple restriction echoed the widespread ideas about racial inferiority that had been used to argue for the legalization of black servitude in the territory of Utah.” This is not a restoration argument. This is something that’s roots go further back and they are not something that is uniquely ours. But these ideas about racial inferiority, this racism, had weighty effects.
Joseph Stuart: And one of the people most known to have suffered these effects, is Jane Manning James, who was an early convert to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. You should all read her autobiographical accounts which have been digitized by the church and are available online. But she had petitioned to receive her temple blessings for decades, petitioning Brigham Young, John Taylor, and Wilford Woodruff to be able to receive her endowment and the sealing ordinance. And in 1893, Wilford Woodruff says, well we want to figure out something that we can do. Because as I mentioned, there was no firm policy on the place of people of black African descent being able to participate in the temple. He wasn’t totally sure what to do. And what ends up taking place is that though Sister Janes is alive, she is sealed by proxy. So she is outside of the temple, a living breathing person, while two other people are taking her place in her sealing ordinance by proxy and also her endowment by proxy. This had never happened before, so far as we can tell it never happened again. But again, I just wanted to point out that Latter-day Saint prophets don’t know everything from the beginning, they are trying their best and I admire that President Woodruff was trying to find a way to provide a way for Jane Manning James to receive these temple blessings even as he wasn’t sure how or what the church’s racial position was. And again, just keep in mind, he is the President of the Church and he’s not totally sure what position of the church is based on historical precedent in a relation to the place of black people in the church.
Janiece Johnson: And the fact that they never do that again, it seems to suggest that perhaps that nobody was happy with it. Jane renews her petition very shortly thereafter, so it seems that she is not happy with it. But, when we get to the beginning of the turn of the 20th century, this is something that is still in question. Joseph F. Smith was asked to consider the priesthood ordination certificates of Elijah Able in 1879 and Joseph F. Smith examined those in 1879 and said they were good. However, by 1907 he said that he was mistaken and they were not good. In that time period is when we have this transition to it becomes something concrete. It becomes a firm policy, a firm restriction. And this will continue for most of the 20th century, at least the first half of the 20th century. Though beginning in the late 1950s and early 1960s, we begin to have the policy is still firm, but lots of questions surround that policy, and the origins of that policy. I suspect that if you had asked the average member of the church they would say a revelation is why we believe this, why we practice this. There became this historical amnesia as to the source of this policy and practice. And that’s another piece that I think is important from that introduction, calling this a policy and a practice, not a revelation.
Joseph Stuart: Certainly, and that’s language that David O. McKay uses, that is something can be changed if a revelation were to be received. And that’s something that it seemed that President McKay pursued throughout his presidency and there are several events that precipitated it, including the larger Civil Rights Movement from 1954 to 1968. So think Brown v. Board of Education through the assasination of Martin Luther King Jr. Now, the Black Civil Rights Movement goes back much further in time and forward from 1968, but those are sort of traditional years associated with it and those are right in the middle of President McKay’s administration, his service as President of the church. Other things that happened include, the church coming to Africa, and other restoration churches sending missionaries to Africa.
Janiece Johnson: Likewise, Brazil. And the expansion of the church into Brazil has a really important role here.
Joseph Stuart: Because Brazil was founded as a slave society and because so many people married and had children with people of different races over 500 years, it was practically impossible to prove that you did not have black African ancestry at some point if you were a Brazilian. And the same was true in South Africa where the British had ruled for centuries and so something President McKay actually did in those cases is that you did not have to prove that you were not black if you had light skin. We can see that there are still questions about color, still questions about race. Even as ideas have changed and ideas about the origin of different racial groups have changed in the 20th century, members of the church and church leaders are still trying to figure out how do we incorporate people into the Gospel because we believe that bond and free, male and female, black and white are all alike unto God. How do we make that a reality? Well Official Declaration #2 didn’t come under the administration of President McKay, he undoubtedly created opportunities that led to President Kimball who served after Harold B. Lee and Joseph Fielding Smith to begin to pursue revelation as President of the Church on the question of what was the place of black people within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Janiece Johnson: Well, and I think that thinking about President Kimball and his experience as a member of the quorum of David O. McKay’s Quorum of the Twelve, he’s a member with Hugh B. Brown who is very outspoken on Civil Rights matters, who is an activist. We can call him an activist in terms of Civil Rights. And President Kimball, then Elder Kimball, was a little uncomfortable with how outspoken Hugh B. Brown was. But we see a significant shift by the time he comes to be prophet that he recognizes nothing is ever going to change unless he takes a risk and does something.
Joseph Stuart: Now at the opening press conference that President Kimball answered questions about when he was ordained to be president of the church. He said there were no plans to change the church’s position in matters of race, but that doesn’t mean that behind the scenes he wasn’t working on receiving a revelation or that he was leaving the matter alone. And Janiece, the story of Jelvesio and Ruda Marten’s, I think it’s very important here. Can you tell us about that?
Janiece Johnson: The Martins were faithful members of the Church in Brazil and they had joined the church without any prospect of full participation in the Church. Their son, Marcus, was engaged and President Kimball told them that they should prepare to send their son on a mission. We have a number of different instances in the years leading up to 1978 of President Kimball talking to people, talking to members, talking to them about their experiences, studying. He’s particularly studying Wilford Woodruff and Official Declaration #1. He wants his full quorum behind him. He is also studying scholarship. There’s an article that was written in 1973, published in dialogue by Lester Bush that suggests that this restruction did not originate with Joseph Smith but originated with Brigham Young and all of these things work on President Kimball. He is thinking, he is searching, he is praying, he is fasting. And all of these things come together. One of my friends, her mother was a white woman dating a black man, both members of the church, both very active and faithful and she worried, wondered whether this was the right decision for her. But had a dream one night of her sitting in the celestial room with her family around her and knew that was the right decision for her to make without the promise of how that would be realized. But we can see the Lord working on individuals and groups and initiating the beginning of this most essential change.
Joseph Stuart: I love that President Kimball was gathering all the information that he could, because good revelation is built on good information and we have to have faith, we have to have hope, we have to pray and seek inspiration, but the more information we have, the better we are able to now what the Lord wants us to do.
Janiece Johnson: And President Nelson keeps reminding us of that too.
Joseph Stuart: And it’s something that President Kimball, as you said, he wanted to have the church leaders with him on the decision and he would meet with them one to one and ask them, is this scriptural, is this something that you feel could change? And this took years. And again, I just want to say that even as President of the church, this isn’t a dictatorship. You are working to come to decisions by council. Now the authority lies with the President of the church, but good leaders work to make sure that everyone is rowing in the same direction on the good ship Zion so to speak.
Janiece Johnson: For a bit more of an idea, the Quorum of the Twelve included Bruce R. McConkie who himself and his father-in-law had both published and spoken considerably trying to offer rationale to support this policy and practice. And President Kimball didn’t want everyone but one member of his quorum. He wanted a united quorum.
Joseph Stuart: So President Kimball, in June 1978, calls the First Presidency and the Twelve Apostles together to pray for confirmation that this is what they should do. And he says, “I offered the final prayer,” in a prayer circle, “…this revelation and assurance came to me so clearly that there was no question about it. I knew that the time had come.” And reading the oral histories and testimonies of those who were present at the time, they say the same thing. They knew instantly that was exactly what they needed to do. One of the things that I Iove is that immediately President Kimball calls someone, I presume someone in communications for the church and says, we’ve received a revelation. We want the world to know in so many words. And the news comes out very quickly and it’s something that’s joyous news to be able to share with members of the church. Now that didn’t mean that the rationales that had been given to affirm the church’s racial restriction went away. Ideas don’t just disappear in the same way that practices don’t just disappear over time. And one of the quotes that I find most powerful comes from Bruce R. McConkie, who has Janiece mentioned he and his father in law Joseph Fielding Smith had written a lot about the racial restriction. And I love his humility here. He says about the restriction, “Forget everything that I have said or that Brigham Young, or whoever 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. It doesn’t make a difference what anybody ever said about this matter before the first day of June of this year, 1978. As to any slivers of light or any particles of darkness of the past, we forget about them.” I will say though that this is very optimistic, but that we are continuing to the present day to have to explain to others both within the church and outside of the church that the rationales that were given were not from God.
Janiece Johnson: Elder McConkie makes some changes in his Mormon Doctrine book but perhaps not all of the changes that would help with this eradication. And more recently, President Nelson has been very clear that this is something that needs to be eradicated, that we have not accomplished that yet. Several years ago, Elder Holland when being interviewed for a documentary called “The Mormons” on PBS he said, “We don’t pretend that something wasn’t taught or practice wasn’t pursued for whatever reason. But I think we can be declarative in our current literature, in books that we reproduce, in teachings that go forward from 1978 forward, we can make sure that none of it is declared. That may be where we still need to make sure we are absolutely dutiful but we put a careful eye of scrutiny on anything from earlier writings and teachings just to make sure that none of it is perpetuated in the present. That’s the least I think of our current responsibilities on the topic.”
Joseph Stuart: I’m reminded of something that President Uchdorf once taught borrowing from a sermon once delivered by Martin Luther King Jr. where he talked about how some of us are sleeping through the restoration, meaning that some of us believe that all truth has been revealed and that we are on autopilot until the Second Coming. And I think about this in regards to matters of race and about each of our responsibilities to be repairers of the breach, as it says in Isaiah. To move forward with faith and to make reality the aspirations as we have as a church to be a Zion people where whether one is rich or poor, black or white, male or female, bond or free, all are alike unto God.
Janiece Johnson: I have spent a significant majority of my career focused on one of the darkest moments in LDS history, Mount Meadows Massacre, which you may see a bonus episode about. Dealing with something so horrific from our past has given me a philosophy of how I approach difficult things. And I believe that like Elder Holland, we don’t pretend that something didn’t happen. We approach it head on. We are willing to face difficult questions head on, learn everything we can about them, and then put it on the Lord and ask the Lord for that help. There are difficult things that we are all going to wrestle with. And some of the wrestling may not directly affect our lives, but is very important to those people who are around us. And learning to treat to help others learn to treat all of our sisters and brothers, all of our friends in mortality as children of God. That is the primary marker of our discipleship, how we treat other people. And we haven’t fixed this yet. As I taught at BYU-Idaho my heart was wrenched as principally black students and also other students of color talked to me about their experience. Many of them had grown up in the church in other places and never experienced racism in the church and then they suddenly came to this church school and they experienced things that they didn’t tell other people about. They were ashamed. This should not be in the Lord’s church. And we have not done a good enough job at eradicating it.
Joseph Stuart: Thank you for sharing that Jancie. And in speaking with students at BYU and other church institutions, some things that I’ve learned that if you like me are a white, Latter-Day Saint looking to help that you can do. The first is to know the history of the church, especially as it relates to race so that it isn’t always the burden of people of color to have to explain the church’s history. The second is to stand up when you hear something incorrect being taught on matters of race, to be able to affirm to others around you that you as a faithful latter-day saint know the history and that it is on us to eradicate racism within our communities and third, it’s important to recognize that because at least in the United States, most wards in the Mountain West and other areas are predominantly white, that sometimes comments can go unexcused or unexplained, but it’s important, as President Hinckley said to stand a little taller, to be better, so do as the hym says to do what is right and let the consequence fall out. Another resource that I would offer you listeners of the podcast and elsewhere is a project called, Century of Black Mormons, supported at the University of Utah and can be found at centuryofblackmormons.org where you can learn the stories of more than a hundred black latter-day saints who joined the church between 1830 and 1930, learn about them, what their lives were like, the joys that they experienced, as well as the difficulties because it’s important to remember that there was joy too and to become better acquainted with these pioneers from our past that may not be as well known outside of Elijah Able and Jane Manning James. And with that, we will close the episode. We know the Lord loves you, have a great week y’all.
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The views expressed here and in Maxwell Institute publications are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Maxwell Institute, Brigham Young University, or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“Seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith.” (D&C 88:118)