A friend asked that a read a book about the first black man ordained to the LDS Priesthood after the 1978 revelation: Joseph Freeman. (I’ve documented about 6 black men who were ordained in the 1830s and 1840s, as well as a few others who avoided the restriction despite the ban.) The book was a nice, short, entertaining read, written in a first person account by Joseph Freeman himself. Published in 1979, In the Lord’s Due Time almost seemed to be a time capsule. For example, I wasn’t expecting to Joseph to refer to himself as a “negro” so often.
Freeman was a descendant of slaves. His great-grandparents weren’t allowed to marry by their white slave owners, but wanted to have some sort of ritual to signify their commitment to each other. Slaves came up with a ritual called “jump the broom.” In the ritual, a prospective husband and wife would stand on one side of a broom, holding hands. Together, they would literally jump over the broom together, indicating their new marriage. It was a fascinating story I had not heard, and of course white slave-owners often sold slaves without regard to keeping families together. With no legally recognized marriages, no divorces were needed. Slaves, left to fend for themselves, might jump the broom with 2 or 3 different partners. (Hearing this made me so sad for the callousness of the white men who were literally breaking up families.) Of course some slave-owners purposely impregnated black slaves in order to create a larger slave workforce too. This was truly a sickening practice.
Joseph’s great-grandparents escaped slavery during the Civil War to another part of North Carolina where blacks were free and started farming tobacco. The farming business was passed down through generations, and Joseph worked with his father on the tobacco farm (they also sold other crops like lettuce too, and participated in logging during winters) until his teenage years when his family moved from Vanceboro to Greensboro, NC. Freeman’s mother was a minister in the Holiness faith, and Joseph wanted to become a minister his whole life. Following graduation from high school, he was licensed and ordained a minister in the Holiness congregation. Because he believed in a lay clergy, he turned down a scholarship to attend a Methodist seminary (where he would have been trained to be a paid minister.)
Soon after his ordination, he joined the army and was stationed in Hawaii between 1972-1975. While there, he visited the Polynesian Cultural Center, coming into contact with Mormon missionaries. He learned of the priesthood restriction, which bothered him greatly. He also loved the idea of eternal marriage, and was dismayed to learn he wouldn’t be able to go to the temple. He described meeting with the missionaries who were also teaching 2 other investigators from the Bahai faith. From page 57,
Without really giving the missionaries a chance to present their discussion, the investigators began an incessant stream of questions, dwelling particularly on the Negro/priesthood issue. Nothing the missionaries could say would satisfy the two men. I thought it a little amusing that I, being the only black present, was less agitated by the whole question of the Negroes and the priesthood than the white men were. I wasn’t very impressed or interested at all as I listened to the argument that ensued over this issue; even though the missionaries tried to stay away from an argument, the two men persisted.
At the time, Joseph was simply interested in learning more about the church, not converting, but was intrigued with doctrines. His Holiness faith forbade him to use drugs or alcohol, so he had no problem with the Word of Wisdom. He was actually encourage when the missionaries showed him biblical verses that said dancing was ok; dancing was forbidden by his Holiness upbringing as well as pre-marital sex. His favorite Mormon was Toe Isapella Leituala (pronounced To-a), a returned missionary raised in Samoa. She worked at the Polynesian Cultural Center and attended the Church College in Hawaii. She was serving as Relief Society President at the time and told Joseph she would never marry him because he couldn’t take her to the temple. He persisted (with the help of a matchmaker) and the two married June 15, 1974, following his baptism on Sept 30, 1973. Their first child was born in Hawaii in 1975. Joseph left the army, and they spent some extended time visiting her family in Samoa, as well as his family in North Carolina before moving to Salt Lake in 1976 where their second child was born.
Joseph looked for the Genesis Group, a group established by the prophet Joseph Fielding Smith in 1970 to provide outreach to black church members, but nobody had heard of the group and knew nothing about it. When Freeman moved to another stake in the Salt Lake Valley, the new stake president asked him to attend and soon called him as a counselor in the group. Joseph noted that there were only a handful of members when he first attended in Dec 1977 and told of division that developed among the group about a year earlier. From page 102,
About a year before Toe and I had been introduced to the Genesis group, division and disharmony had thundered throguh the group, dividing the wheat from the tares, so to speak. In 1976 an elder in the Church living in Vancouver, Washington, took it upon himself to baptize a black man and then “ordain” him to the priesthood. This action was not sanctioned by the First Presidency, and when the elder refused to cooperate with Church officials by renouncing his claim to authority to officiate in such an ordination, he was excommunicated from the church.
Freeman doesn’t give more details, but if you want to read more about Douglas Wallace’s actions see my post Events Leading up to the 1978 Revelation. In fact, Douglas Wallace went on to explain his actions in the comments of my post!
However, Freeman continues with the issues it created with the Genesis group.
The entire incident encouraged some of the Genesis members to get their grievances off their chests by openly criticizing the leaders of the Church for their failure to acknowledge equality of its black members by revoking the priesthood restriction. Arguments, dissension, and heated debates resulted; some were so insistent that they drew up a petition for all in the group to sign demanding that President Spencer W. Kimball modify previous statements on interracial marriage and make a firm comitment as to when the priesthood would be given to the Negro people. Most, of course, would not sign this petition; but quite a few did–enough to cause a damaging split in the group.
When the petition was presented to President Bridgeforth, he stood firm in his support of the policies of the Church and particularly of the prophet and the other General Authorities. When the dissenters could see that their rebellion was not supported by their immediate leaders, they left the group in disgust. Some who had not supported the petition also left, not wanting to be part of a group where this kind of contention existed. It was so discouraging for all involved in the group to see it cut in half because of the successful efforts of the adversary–and especially when it was just gaining momentum and strength.
It was truly interesting to hear Joseph’s thoughts about how he heard about the revelation, which is on page 1 of the book.
When my wife called me to the phone, I didn’t mind at all leaving he yard work and that hot June sun for the relative cool of the house. But as I picked up the phone, in my wildest hopes I couldn’t have guessed what was going to happen during the next few minutes.
“Brother Freeman, did you hear the announcement?” Was that suppressed excitement in my friend’s voice?
“On TV. Have you been watching TV this morning?”
“No, I’ve been outside working.”
“Well Listen! President Kimball has had a revelation–about your people, the blacks.”
Instantly the thought flashed through my mind–priesthood! Oh, but it couldn’t be so. Was this some foolish joke? I must not get excited.
“Is that right?” I kept my voice calm.
“Yes–about the priesthood. You can hold the priesthood now!”
Again mixed hope and fear. (“Lord, let this be true!”) Again my cautious reply: “Is that right?”
“Brother Freeman,” came the frustrated response, “don’t you believe me? There will be a special report about it at noon. Turn on the TV and see for yourself. I wanted to be the first to tell you the news.”
Instant stupor of thought–instant apprehension–it couldn’t be–or could it? My friend must have taken some statement out of context, or maybe he was playing an April Fool’s joke a little late.
Even when he repeated the information, I kept outwardly under control. I just couldn’t allow myself to get excited about his news. It was unbelievable, too wonderful to hope for, and yet…
It was hard to maintain my poise when I put the phone down, though, because my wife–with her constant stream of “Who is it?” “What’s happening?” and “How wonderful!”–had gotten the gist of the conversation. And certainly she was no model of calm and serenity as she danced around clapping her hands. Nevertheless, the thought remained with me–I had to stay quiet, not get excited. I kept thinking, This is just some misunderstanding; I feared that to believe it would produce a devastating letdown.
Then the feeling hit the pit of my stomach–maybe it is true! And suddenly I had to know right away. I phoned the Church Office Building and was put through to the First Presidency’s office. A voice which sounded to me like an angel’s voice spoke these wonderful words: “Yes, Brother Freeman, what you’ve heard is true. The official announcement that the priesthood is now available to all worthy males of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will be given over radio and television all day.”
As I hung up the phone, little beads of perspiration broke out on my forehead, and my knees began to shake uncontrollably. It was true! It was really true! I could hold the Priesthood!
Joseph was ordained an Elder just 2 days later (June 11, 1978), and was sealed to his wife and 2 boys just 2 weeks later on June 23, 1978 in the Salt Lake Temple. Truly it was so fun to read his reaction, and learn more about his life growing up. What are your thoughts?