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1978 revelation celebrated with song

Elder Bateman recalls personal connection

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With a "joyful noise" of abundant praise to God (see Psalm 66:1) in a gospel-music vein, members of the Genesis group joined with a Las Vegas, Nev., choir led by recording artist Gladys Knight in the Salt Lake Tabernacle June 8 to observe the 25th anniversary of the revelation extending the priesthood to all worthy men without regard for race.

Elder Merrill J. Bateman of the Presidency of the Seventy presided and was the concluding speaker at the meeting, which filled the Tabernacle to capacity. He is a General Authority adviser to Genesis, the Church-sponsored support organization for members of African lineage.

The bulk of the program featured the Saints United Voices, a choir of Church members from Las Vegas organized and led by Sister Knight, who joined the Church about six years ago. She also spoke, declaring her gratitude for the atonement of Christ, for the latter-day restoration of priesthood power and for guidance by living apostles and prophets.

Quoting President Gordon B. Hinckley, Elder Bateman recounted the circumstances under which the revelation was received on June 1, 1978, in the Salt Lake Temple by President Spencer W. Kimball, his counselors and 10 members of the Quorum of the Twelve. He then shared his personal connection with the revelation.

Through business and academic work he was a frequent visitor to the West African nations of Ghana, Nigeria and the Ivory Coast between 1963 and 1978, he said. In those days, virtually no Church members lived in West Africa.

In 1969, he and a friend heard about a little congregation in Accra, Ghana, calling itself The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. They visited the congregation and became acquainted with its members, who had heard of the Church through literature and magazine articles and had patterned their worship services accordingly. Some of them asked him to ask the Church to send missionaries.

He reported his experience to Church headquarters but, in subsequent years, he lost contact with the group in Ghana. Later, in 1977, he was asked to contact Church members who had joined the Church while studying in the United States and then returned home to live in West Africa. He described his joy in finding them still faithful, though the assignment was difficult because of the lack of street addresses in those nations.

In May 1978, he suggested that a fireside be held at BYU, where he was dean of the business school, for African students at the university. About 50 attended. Ten days later, he turned on the radio and heard the announcement of the revelation. "Tears ran down my face as I thought about my African friends and the blessings that awaited them," he said.

That month, he and Edwin Cannon were asked to go to West Africa and visit religious groups who had appropriated the name of the Church. "Brother Cannon and I spent the better part of three weeks" making the visits, he said. "We were led by the Spirit, experiencing one small miracle after another in finding key people," despite the fact that letters they had written did not arrive in time and there were no street addresses or telephone numbers to guide them.

In Cape Coast, he said, they found a church with a blackboard containing a list of hymns for Sunday School, beginning with "We Thank Thee, O God, for a Prophet" and ending with "Come, Come, Ye Saints." "Next to the pulpit was a large statue with an angel with a horn in its mouth standing on a ball," he said. "On one wall was a picture of the Prophet Joseph Smith; on another was a picture of the Tabernacle Choir."

The pastor, J.W.B. Johnson, "had seven congregations totaling 1,400 souls who were waiting to hear the gospel of Jesus Christ," he said. "Can you imagine how we felt and how his people felt when we told them about the revelation and that missionaries were coming?" Brother Johnson today is a stake patriarch.

Turning to the revelation itself, Elder Bateman posed some questions: "Why does the Lord work in stages to take the gospel across the earth? Why did He initially send the Twelve only to the House of Israel and not to the other nations during His ministry? Why did it take a special revelation to Peter to expand the work to the gentiles? . . . In all candor, . . . we do not know the full answers to the questions that I've raised. What we do know is the plan of salvation is universal. We are all God's children and the great plan of redemption is organized so that every person who has lived, now lives or will live will have the opportunity to accept it."

Other speakers on the program included Gladys Knight's husband, William McDowell, whom she married in April 2001, and her daughter, Kenya Jackson.

Sister Jackson spoke of her brother, Jimmy, who died three years ago. She said he had been the first in the family to join the Church and then, by the power of priesthood he held, had baptized his sister and then his mother. She also reminisced about her grandmother, who would watch LDS general conference on television and admonish her children and grandchildren to give attention to the wise men who spoke in the conference.

Brother McDowell, who joined the Church after their marriage, said his wife composed a piece of music and asked him to write words for it. He declined at first, but was overcome by her loving persuasion. Gladys Knight McDowell then performed the song, "He Lives," which includes these words:

"Do you want to know about my friend,

"About this special man I know?

"He is the truth and grace and love

"And He gave his life for me

"And, yes, for you too."

In her talk, she said the 1978 revelation allows God's children to prepare for the Second coming of Jesus Christ.

"I want you to know that I know that this, the Lord's restored gospel, is true," she declared. "President Gordon B. Hinckley is the Lord's ordained prophet who holds the priesthood keys of God's kingdom today."

She said that she has attended many wards of the Church in her extensive travels and has noticed the face of the Church is changing. "In my visits to those wards, I notice they're a lot like ice cream. Not only are they sweet, but some congregations are mostly vanilla, some are chocolate, all according to the makeup of their immediate community. But the most enjoyable sight for me has been to see the audiences made of fudge ripple: all that vanilla and chocolate mingled together."

Citing 4 Nephi 1:17, she recounted the visit of Christ to the Nephites after His resurrection and the impact it had on the society. "All divisions among them ceased," she said. "There were no more '-ites'; no Nephites, no Lamanites, no kind of '-ites.' I like that!"

She said one reason the gospel has been restored in latter days is "to prepare a people to be of one heart, one mind and to dwell in righteousness."

Giving the invocation for the meeting was Joseph J. Freeman, who was widely recognized in the news media in 1978 as being the first black Latter-day Saint to hold the priesthood. He is now the bishop of the Hillsdale Ward in the Salt Lake Granger North Stake.

In introductory comments, Darius Gray, president of Genesis, told of the founding of the group, when its first president, Ruffin Bridgeforth, met with him and Eugene Orr, concerned that the Church was losing some of its black members. Remarkably, a journal entry fixes the date of that meeting as June 8, 1971, precisely seven years before the revelation was announced. They approached the Church leadership, and as a result, President Joseph Fielding Smith assigned three members of the Twelve to meet with them and organize the group, Brother Gray said. It has remained in place since then, providing support to Latter-day Saints with African heritage seeking common bonds and fellowship.

E-mail: rscott@desnews.com