Race and the Priesthood
The power of the priesthood is the authority to act in God’s name and can only be given to those whom the Lord ordains. The ability to exercise the power of the priesthood, after one has been ordained to it, depends strictly upon one’s personal worthiness. In ancient times, only certain men were selected to hold the priesthood. In the days of Moses, Aaron was set apart as the high priest, and only his descendants were able to be ordained to the priesthood. During all the years that the Law of Moses was in force, only Levites held the priesthood, because the Lord declared it should be that way. It was the pattern of the Firstborn being dedicated to the service of God. Israel is the “firstborn” of the world, Levites are the “firstborn” of Israel, and Aaron’s descendants are the “firstborn” of the Levites. Christ became the Firstborn of God, and His sacrifice allows Him to choose worthy followers to administrate under His authority. The standard for them is worthiness and covenant-making.
When The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was organized, the priesthood was restored. Men who had been baptized and who were worthy were ordained to the priesthood, as is still the practice in the Church today. However, in the early days of the Church, it was the practice not to ordain men of African descent to the priesthood. Though some people have come up with reasons for this practice, the fact is that the reason was either never revealed by the Lord, or there was never any record of the revelation. The Church has received a lot of criticism for this past practice, but the criticism is not what is important. What is important is that the Church has never taught any doctrine demeaning people of color in any way. Nor has the Church ever segregated its congregations. Joseph Smith taught, in fact, that any perceived inferiority or weakness in those of African descent only existed because those people had not been given the same education and opportunities as had the rest of the country’s population. The Church also supported civil rights causes long before the priesthood was extended to men of color. Many have asked why it took until 1978 for men of African heritage to receive the priesthood. The only true answer is, we don’t know, because the Lord never offered an explanation.
There was a lot of pressure put on the Church and its leaders to give the priesthood to all worthy men. However, pressure is not what changes things in the Church. The only way policies change is if the Lord instructs his prophet, through revelation, to change something. Many prophets had wished for a this policy to be different, but it could not change just because people wished it were different. However, in 1978, Spencer W. Kimball, who was then the prophet of the Church, felt strongly that the time had come for all worthy male members of the priesthood to receive the priesthood and consequently temple blessings as well. Many people hoped for and looked forward to this day;
previous presidents had even prophesied that at some day all worthy males would be allowed these blessings. President Kimball turned to the Lord through much prayer and fasting in the temple. This was an issue he pondered long hours over and finally received a revelation in 1978 that the time had come to extend the priesthood to all worthy male members, regardless of race. This revelation was received unanimously by all Church leaders and was presented to the Church in the September General Conference of that year, where it was also received unanimously. This revelation has entered Church cannon as Official Declaration—2.
An apostle when this revelation came forth, Bruce R. McConkie addressed the difficulty some people had with the whole issue:
“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 whomsoever 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 of this year. 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” (Stephen R. Haynes, Noah’s Curse: The Biblical Justification of American Slavery (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002).
This principle can be applied to nearly any revelation given in the Church. We may not know why the Lord gives a commandment, but we follow that commandment to the best of our abilities. When the Lord wants something changed, He reveals it to the only man who holds the keys to His Church: the living, modern prophet. Though we do not know why it ever was a practice to withhold the priesthood from anyone, we do know that now, at this time, the Lord has commanded that all worthy men, regardless of race or color, are able to receive His priesthood after making the proper covenants.
The extending of the priesthood to all worthy males was immediate and the effects have been innumerable. This revelation has brought joy to millions of people and will continue to do so. The Church continues to expand throughout the world, and the blessings of the priesthood can now be exercised and shared by all Church members. Temples now dot the earth in myriad countries, and temple blessings are extended to all worthy, prepared members.