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Blacks and the priesthood: 39 years since a revelation that 'changed the world'

On June 8, 1978, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced that a revelation had been received by the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.

“He has heard our prayers, and by revelation has confirmed that the long-promised day has come when every faithful, worthy man in the Church may receive the holy priesthood, with power to exercise its divine authority, and enjoy with his loved ones every blessing that flows therefrom, including the blessings of the temple,” a letter from the First Presidency read. “All worthy male members of the Church may be ordained to the priesthood without regard for race or color. ...

“We declare with soberness that the Lord has now made known his will for the blessing of all his children throughout the earth who will hearken to the voice of his authorized servants, and prepare themselves to receive every blessing of the gospel.”

As Official Declaration 2 states, the revelation was the result of “many hours in the Upper Room of the Temple supplicating the Lord for divine guidance.”

The revelation held great significance. From the mid-1800s until 1978, black men of African descent were not ordained to the priesthood within the LDS Church, and black men and women were prohibited from participating in the temple endowment or sealing ordinances.

Despite great racial divide in the United States when the church was established in 1830, several black men were ordained to the priesthood in the first two decades of the church’s existence, with at least one, Elijah Abel, participating in temple ordinances. It was not until 1852 that Brigham Young, who had previously praised a black man who was ordained to the priesthood by saying “We have one of the best Elders, an African,” announced that black men of African descent would no longer be ordained to the priesthood.

“Church leaders and members advanced many theories to explain the priesthood and temple restrictions,” the LDS Church’s Race and the Priesthood gospel topics page reads. “None of these explanations is accepted today as the official doctrine.”

Today, the LDS Church’s stance on race relationships does not leave room for interpretation.

“Today, the Church disavows the theories advanced in the past that black skin is a sign of divine disfavor or curse, or that it reflects unrighteous actions in a premortal life; that mixed-race marriages are a sin; or that blacks or people of any other race or ethnicity are inferior in any way to anyone else. Church leaders today unequivocally condemn all racism, past and present in any form,” the church’s website states.

President Gordon B. Hinckley discussed the topic of racism in his April 2006 general conference talk, “The Need for Greater Kindness.

“Now I am told that racial slurs and denigrating remarks are sometimes heard among us,” President Hinckley said. “I remind you that no man who makes disparaging remarks concerning those of another race can consider himself a true disciple of Christ. Nor can he consider himself to be in harmony with the teachings of the Church of Christ. How can any man holding the Melchizedek Priesthood arrogantly assume that he is eligible for the priesthood whereas another who lives a righteous life but whose skin is of a different color is ineligible?”

In 2012, the church issued a statement condemning racism.

“The Church’s position is clear — we believe all people are God’s children and are equal in His eyes and in the church," the statement read. "We do not tolerate racism in any form."

Following the revelation, Elder Bruce R. McConkie, then of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, spoke regarding the process that led to the change at a CES Religious Educators Symposium.

“We have now 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,” Elder McConkie said.

For the 30th anniversary of the revelation in 2008, the Deseret News featured a number of black Latter-day Saints, including a stake president and a temple sealer, who shared their perspectives on the priesthood restriction, their faith and the challenges they've faced as members of the church.

“If there is a person of color in the LDS Church, they have gone through a lot to get there,” said Kevin Giddins, who joined the church after the revelation.

Marcus Martins was 13 years old when his family joined the LDS Church despite the fact that their African ancestry prohibited Martins and his father from receiving the priesthood. Martins said his family never experience “any crisis of faith.”

“We saw this as just the cost of membership in the church,” he said. “Because of our desire, and we had the desire to join the church, we could just say that this is the way the church operates. ...We had to accept it, so we did.”

Alan Cherry also joined the church before the 1978 revelation was received.

“From the very beginning my impression that came from heaven was I was not to worry about priesthood restriction,” Cherry said. “If you are focused on ‘what good I can be and what good I can do,’ where you serve becomes less important than how you serve.

“(Having the priesthood) wasn’t about power, pride, prominence, rank and station, having something else other people didn’t have,” he said. “It is my better means to serve.”

The LDS Church held a commemoration event celebrating the 30-year anniversary of the revelation in 2008. Among speakers at the event was Ahmed Corbitt, who was then a stake president in New Jersey but has since served as president of the Dominican Republic Santo Domingo East Mission, whose family joined the church two years after the priesthood revelation. Corbitt told the congregation that the present generation in the church must “teach our children what unites us as disciples of the Savior. As we take this approach, our children will understand in their hearts that the restored gospel is the Lord’s work on earth.”

Corbitt has since written a series of essays regarding “the former priesthood ban on people of African descent.” In the final essay in the series, published Oct. 13, 2014, Corbitt shared his testimony of the revelation.

“I know the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles received a revelation from the Lord in June of 1978," Corbitt wrote. "At the time, I felt it without understanding it. I witness that through those latter-day apostles and prophets, God parted the heavens and opened an effectual door for all His children to receive a fulness of His blessings. In my view, those leaders were instruments in the Lord’s hands to bring about one of the most significant worldwide changes necessary to prepare God’s children for the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.

“Many people today use the phrase ‘change the world.’ The priesthood revelation truly has changed the world! Only three of the recipients of that revelation are living as I write this essay: President (Thomas S.) Monson, President (Boyd K.) Packer and Elder (L. Tom) Perry. It will be a sad day — hopefully afar off — when, in the Lord’s time, they pass to the next world. When they do, I’m convinced they’ll find that the revelation they received has changed that world too.”

At the present, President Thomas S. Monson is the only living recipient of the revelation.