We’re winding down #BlackHistoryMonth and leave with the stories of two black priesthood holders. Dr. Newell Bringhurst talks about Warner McCary, a very colorful character in the story of the priesthood and temple ban on black LDS Church members. Warner McCary, a former slave, was instrumental in causing Brigham Young to re-think ordaining black men to the priesthood. His interracial polygamist sealings to white women infuriated church leaders. Dr. Newell Bringhurst describes these explosive charges, saying they are “stranger than fiction…You can’t make this stuff up!”
Newell: I just finished writing a review of [Angela Pulley Hudson’s] book, which is outstanding. It stands as the definitive study of Warner McCary and the woman he married which is Lucy Stanton, who comes out of a Mormon background. These two—I assume you’ve read the book.
GT: I have read the book. One of the things I just wanted to point out there was, there has been a lot of statements that said he was an escaped slave, but in that book it actually said that he was a freed slave.
Newell: Not really. He never achieved his freedom. That was one of the things he was always afraid of. That’s why he assumed an Indian persona because he was always under the shadow of the Fugitive Slave Act as a runaway black slave. He was always in fear that he would one day be rounded up and sent back to the South. That was one of the things that contributed to him as masquerading as an Indian. He performed as an Indian. He even adopted Indian names. He adopted the name Okah Tubbee. That was the name that he used most. He would do these Indian dances and everything else.
So he goes to Nauvoo and according to the sources available, he meets and marries Lucy Stanton who is a divorced mother of three. Anyway, they get involved with their Mormonism and they actually go back to Cincinnati and they are involved a little bit with the Strangites and they are involved in trying to form their own little Mormon group there in Cincinnati. That doesn’t quite pan out, those two’s efforts sort of peter out.
The next place he goes to is Winter Quarters. He tries to convince Brigham Young that he’s Indian. He emphasized Indian-ness, but Brigham Young isn’t completely convinced. What really infuriates Brigham Young and Mormon leaders there is when he founds his own schismatic movement. He and his wife found his own schismatic movement. Part of the ritual is for him to have sexual relations with the women who come in, who are white women, going to bed in three different times.
That’s not even the full story! I hope you check out our conversation. In our second conversation, we discussed Walker Lewis, a black elder in Boston, Massachusetts. In fact Wilford Woodruff once described this faithful black elder as “an example to our more whiter brethren.”
Newell: He was based in Lowell, Massachusetts and he was a barber. He also belonged to a black Masonic lodge. There was kind of an interesting Masonic connection there with him. Connell O’Donovan has done a lot more research on him than I have and shown that he had interaction with a number of apostles that were coming through, so he was well known amongst the apostles that were coming through. It was William Smith, the younger brother of Joseph Smith that ordained him an elder.
It’s William Appleby who expresses shock when he comes upon him and he finds out Walker Lewis is an elder in the church and this is after the death of Joseph Smith, and [Appleby] writes back, “Is it right that this man should hold the priesthood? If it is so I have yet to learn it.”
So that’s caused some people to say the ban maybe was in place even earlier but there isn’t other evidence to support that. Maybe it was just because whatever was going through Walker Lewis’s mind. There just weren’t that many blacks in the church. Maybe this was kind of an unusual situation for him.
Ultimately as I say he becomes kind of a well-known figure. They don’t seem to question his priesthood. That kind of supports the argument and is one more indication that there was no ban on black ordination. Even in later church leaders, all the way down into the 20th century when Bennion is doing his study in 54, church leaders acknowledged that Walker Lewis had been ordained. That was acknowledged by even J. Reuben Clark. I discuss this in an article that is going to be forthcoming, the ’54 recollections and the church struggling with whether blacks could be ordained and what could be the historical justifications were.
But getting back to Walker Lewis himself, he eventually makes his way out to Utah thinking that maybe he can get his endowments but they deny him so he makes his way back to Boston or to Lowell and resumes his barber practice. There are suggestions that later on, Jane James wants to be sealed to Walker Lewis because she is aware of who Walker Lewis was and that he was indeed a priesthood holder. To bolster the legitimacy of her request for endowments, she says “Can I be sealed to Walker Lewis?” Of course that is denied. That is a poignant story in and of itself.
What do you think of these two polar opposites? Had you heard their stories before?