I really enjoyed the Mormon History Association meetings at Snowbird, Utah this weekend. I can’t tell you how much fun these meetings are for me. The thing I hate most is when there are 2 sessions at the same time that I want to attend. It can be difficult to choose at times, but I was really happy with the ones I attended. I wanted to give a short recap of the speakers I heard.
Black Experience prior to 1978
Jeffrey G. Cannon – LDS Church History Dept – South Africa
Jeff gave a great history of the ban’s effect in South Africa. In the 1940s, the white power movement came to South Africa and the apartheid regime came to power. In 1948, new mission president Evan P Wright came to South Africa, and started a program requiring all whites to prove that they had no black ancestry in order to be ordained to the priesthood. He even called missionaries to work with members in order to trace their genealogy. Members were required to trace their ancestry out of Africa in order to be ordained. It was basically a policy that all whites were assumed black until proven otherwise.
Many South Africans had difficulty tracing their genealogy. Some decided to fake their genealogy. Others immigrated to America or Canada and were quickly ordained. In one story, a father and son were ordained in the U.S., but his other sons stayed in South Africa and were denied. One member remarked “We just feel black all over.” The policy got so bad, that newly called prophet David O. McKay reversed teh policy in 1952 when he toured South Africa and allowed all men to be ordained so long as there was no known evidence of black blood.
Russell Stevenson – Michigan State – Nigeria in 1960s
Greg Prince documented in his biography of David O. McKay that some black Nigerians had found a Book of Mormon and requested missionaries to teach them about the church. Russell Stevenson discovered that these people came from the Nigerian state of Igboland and did some research to cover more information about the story. McKay sent just a few missionaries, but when the Nigerian government discovered the black ban on priesthood and temple attendance, they refused entry for more missionaries. A Civil War soon broke out, making it very unsafe for everyone. Stevenson discussed the allure of Mormonism to the Nigerians, and how they improvised their worship services over the years.
Jeremy Talmage – doctoral student at U of Utah. LDS History Library – Black ordinations in Brazil prior to 1978
Jeremy told some interesting stories of church members in Brazil. Originally Mormon missionaries concentrated on white German immigrants in Brazil until a new law required all meetings to be spoken in Portugese. This forced missionaries to teach more natives. The problem with that was that blacks had intermingled with Brazilians so much that many Brazilians had black blood. Missionaries, in order not to offend, often asked to see family photos so they could determine if there were black members. If there were, they tried to avoid teaching them. Inevitably “mistakes” were made.
Eduardo Contieri was one such mistake. Injured in a car accident, he received a blessing and was miraculously healed from his injuries. A few months later, he was called as branch president. While doing some genealogy, he discovered a grandmother was black. He told his stake president and asked what should be done. He was quietly released and told not to exercise his priesthood any more in public, but he could do this in private. (I believe this was about 1964.) He gave a blessing to his wife in private, and said he felt the priesthood when he had previously ordained and blessed others prior to the suspension of his priesthood. The issue was brought to the attention of Howard W. Hunter who brought the case to the First Presidency in Nov 1971. They chose to restore his priesthood.
Clinton D Christensen – BYU grad in English, works for the Church
Clint spoke about the black inconsistent experience in the Caribbean and Central America. He noted that just 5% of African slaves came to the United States. The other 95% came to Mexico, South, and Central America. Unlike the US, these blacks intermarried with natives, so it was very difficult to determine if a person had “black blood.” He told stories of 3 men that were very interesting.
One branch president ordained two black men to the aaronic priesthood because he needed their help in the branch a few months prior to the 1978 revelation. Missionaries were upset, and asked the branch president to be excommunicated. After consultation with Pres Kimball, the branch president was told to follow the policy, and the young men were told not to exercise their priesthood. Apparently this was a common practice with men were discovered to have been ordained even though they had “black blood.”
Roberto Ocampo joined the church in Hondurus in 1970. He went to his leaders asking why he hadn’t been ordained to the priesthood even though people baptized later had been. He was then told about the ban. Upset, he told his grandmother of the experience, and she told him he didn’t have black blood. He returned to his leaders and told them what his grandmother had told him. Uncritically, they took his word, and ordained him, despite his quite obvious black skin. (After hearing what happened in South Africa, this was a very funny story.)
I’ll stop here, and post some of the other sessions later in the week. Questions or comments?
In his comments on the papers, Paul Reeve said that he believes there have ALWAYS been exceptions where blacks were granted the priesthood since the beginning of the church. Sometimes it was a mistake, sometimes it was blacks hiding their heritage. Sometimes there were simply exceptions granted (such as after a mistake.)
As I think about the gay ban, certainly there have been gay priesthood holders since the beginning, and there are gay priesthood holders now. As one member with “black blood” said he could feel the power of God when he conferred priesthood or gave priesthood blessings, it seems evident that God will accept black or gay priesthood holders if they are worthy. It makes both bans seem very silly to me. God looks on the heart, even if our leaders look on the skin or orientation. To put up obstacles seems to attempt to limit the power of God, and it just is wrong.
But not women.
Fascinating. Always enjoy your summaries MH. Thank you.
“As I think about the gay ban, certainly there have been gay priesthood holders since the beginning, and there are gay priesthood holders now.”
Yes, and I’m one of them. 🙂
All is not well in Zion…
I was sad to miss this session, thanks for the write up, MH.
It’s amazing how we learn the stories our past positions seemed silly and untenable. But history is the work of seeing and respecting people during their own times.
I’ll start writing some of my thoughts and from MHA and get them posted today.
I wanted to go to this session, but attented a different one, so I very much appreciate the notes, MH.
Kevin and Kristine, it was good to see you both at MHA! I’ll have to check out Kevin’s notes at BCC, and I saw him typing as furiously as me!