The Revelation

Because I’m Big Mr. Stupidhead, I forgot to note that this past week included the anniversary of the revelation on Priesthood, the revelation granting the priesthood to all worthy male members of the Mormon Church.  The official announcement was dated June 9 1978, and noted that the vote in the Quorum of the Twelve took place on the 8th. Count any of those dates as official; it’s still the greatest thing to have happened in Mormondom in my lifetime.

The policy of Priesthood exclusion never made a lick of sense.  Black people couldn’t have the priesthood? Say what? Are you freakin’ kidding me?  I remember vividly when I was in high school, hearing about it in Seminary, and hearing my seminary teacher’s defense of it–the old ‘they were fence-sitters in the pre-existence’ argleblargle.  Anyway, it really bothered me, and I asked my Dad what he thought of that explanation.  My Dad’s an opera singer, and a convert to the Church–not, back then, terribly well-read in LDS history and theology.  But a good and decent and kind-hearted man.  And he said, ‘I don’t know the answer to your question.  But that pre-existence stuff doesn’t make sense to me.  It just feels wrong to me.’

I really think that on that issue, that kind of response was the right one.  In the Church, lots of really bright people were tying themselves in knots trying to figure out a way to reconcile a policy that prevented black people from having the priesthood with our Church’s doctrine and history.  Meanwhile, a guy like my Dad, without much theological training, went straight to the heart of the matter.  ‘Sorry, but that’s a terrible argument.  I don’t believe that could be true.  It feels wrong.’  His heart led him right.

You can’t really talk about the policy of priesthood exclusion without getting into the reason why it existed, and the various convoluted arguments for it.  And the reason the policy existed seems to me perfectly clear.  One word: racism.  It was an expression of the residual racism of American society as it surfaced from the nineteenth to the mid-to-late twentieth century.

This seems to me an obvious point, but it sounds way more accusatory than I intend it.  Was Brigham Young a racist?  Well, he said lots of racist things.  And he instituted a racist policy.  But was he more of a racist than any other white American in the mid-19th century?  No.  I admire Brigham Young; I also admire Abraham Lincoln.  I googled ‘Lincoln black equality’ and came upon this paper by a high school kid. Bright kid: “Lincoln . . . did not feel that black equality could ever be achieved, and was not fighting for it.”  Quite so, and the kid’s paper cites good evidence for that assertion.

As far as I know, there was one white American in the mid-19th century who truly believed that black people were equal in every way to white people, equal in intelligence, moral instincts and capacity to achieve.  I’m thinking of John Brown, and he was crazy.  By ‘crazy’ I don’t mean ‘outside accepted social norms.’  I mean, ‘murdered people he disagreed with.’  I mean, John Brown was a terrorist.  Fascinating dude, obviously.  But nuts.

And yet he was a hero to many.  And they wrote a song about him: ‘John Brown’s body lies a-moulderin’ in his grave, but his soul’s a marchin’ on.’  Or ‘truth goes marching’ on.  And that great abolitionist hymn got a new text, from Julia Ward Howe, a committed abolitionist, when she saw Union soldiers mustering outside Washington D. C, and heard them sing.  Her updated lyrics came to her in a rush, overnight, and she later published them as The Battle Hymn of the Republic.

And those revised lyrics, the Battle Hymn, became the greatest hit ever for the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. We all know that version, with the trumpets at the beginning, the basses chanting ‘truth is marching’ while the women sing the melody.  I’ve sung it in choirs, so have you, probably, if you’re a choir person.

That version leaves out a couple of verses.  We leave out this one, for example:

I have read a fiery gospel writ in burnished rows of steel: As ye deal with my condemners, so with you my grace shall deal; Let the Hero, born of woman, crush the serpent with his heel, Since God is marching on.

What a great verse.  ‘See these bullets?  ‘Burnished rows of steel? Deal with that kinda grace, sucka.  We’re coming, serpent South, to crush your head.’  Splendidly in-your-face.  No wonder we leave it out.

But the most in-your-face verse in the hymn, is the one the choir slows down for.  “As he died to make men holy, let us live to make men free.”  It’s an abolitionist hymn, understood as such in Howe’s day.  We see it as a patriotic song, and it is.  We see it as a martial hymn, and it’s that too (Winston Churchill specifically requested it for his funeral, because for him, it symbolized victory over the Nazis).  I’m sure the Choir still sings it because it’s a religious hymn, a Christian hymn, and it’s that too.  But it’s specifically a hymn opposed to slavery.  It’s specifically a hymn saying that Christianity must stand, always, in opposition to the enslavement of our brothers and sisters.  And it’s a hymn–‘burnished rows of steel’–even suggesting the appropriateness of a national violent response to slavery.

It’s much the same sentiment that President Lincoln reflected in his Second Inaugural:

If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through his appointed time, he now wills to remove, and that he gives to both North and South this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to him? Fondly do we hope—fervently do we pray—that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, “The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

Slavery, in other words, is a moral evil sufficient to warrant the American Civil War, that level of destruction, that amount of death. And that’s essentially the same argument made by the Battle Hymn. Burnished rows of steel indeed.

And in 1960, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir won the Grammy for its recording of the Battle Hymn.

The cheap rhetorical trick here would be to point up the irony, and say ‘a choir from a racist Church won the Grammy for an abolitionist hymn.’  But the words ‘as He died to make men holy, let us live to make men free’ could mean other things than abolition.

And yes, the policy of priesthood exclusion was racist.  But nineteenth century American society was racist.  So was twentieth century American society, through most of the century. So is American society today, actually, if all the “Keep the White House White” tee shirts at Tea Party rallies is any indication.  Mormon culture reflected that racism–it would be naive to think that it wouldn’t. We participated in it, and we shouldn’t have, and that’s bad.  And we had sun-down towns (towns where blacks were told to leave by sun-down, or face violent consequences) in Utah and Idaho.  And restrictive covenants in mortgages.  And anti-miscegenation laws.  And Klan conclaves.  All part of Utah’s history, all wrong, all worth our condemnation.

But in 1978, an elderly conservative man spent hour after hour on his knees, begging his Heavenly Father for guidance, as he struggled to overcome his own culture, and that culture’s past.

Reading Ed Kimball’s brilliant article, “Spencer W. Kimball and the Revelation on Priesthood,” published in BYU Studies, describes how hard President Kimball worked to receive that revelation.  Revelation doesn’t just distill, like dew, on the shoulders of prophets.  Revelation requires work, discipline, hard study and hours spent kneeling in prayer.  President Kimball had a lifetime of cultural conditioning to overcome.  He had to study at the feet of the Savior, to learn that ideas breathed in through the very air of the society in which he had grown to manhood, that those ideas were wrong.  That he had been wrong.  That can’t have been easy.  And we honor his memory.

We should also honor those of our black LDS brothers and sisters who continue to battle for equality, who continue to fight exclusion, who continue to set the historical record straight, and who lead the fight against silly folk doctrines like the fence-sitters nonsense, which continue to disfigure our culture.  Margaret Young and Darius Gray and the Genesis group are among the heroes who keep alive the fight for historical truth, and doctrinal accuracy.

What the Priesthood Revelation reveals, though, is the capacity for change, for individual change, for institutional change.  We can eradicate racism from our hearts. We can embrace all our brothers and sisters.  And that’s what this anniversary celebrates.

10 thoughts on “The Revelation

  1. Janiel Miller

    Excellent article, and beautifully written. I’ve always felt this way. At least ever since I got old enough to think for myself and question the whole “fence-sitter” silliness, which I also grew up on. I mean, this revelation came a mere 10 years following Martin Luther King Junior’s assassination. Society as a whole was, shamefully, barely ready for it. I spent a big portion of my elementary school years in Washington D.C. and had many friends and classmates who were bussed to my school from the “black” parts of town as part of desegregation. The “fence-sitter” statement in itself is evidence of a white cultural discomfort that existed with calling all men equal. It was so cool when, while I lived in Germany, a young airman got up in our sacrament meeting and talked about how he was so shocked and excited when the Priesthood Revelation was announced on Armed Forces radio, that he nearly rear-ended the bus in front of him on the base. He was finally going to hold the priesthood that all his LDS male contemporaries had held for years. He had been totally faithful before that. I’d love to talk to him again and find out how he stayed with it even without the priesthood. What a guy.

    Loved your thoughts on this, Eric!

  2. Jeb

    When I had my first ever temple recommend interview with the Stake President he asked if there was anything in the church I couldn’t accept or reconcile. I said “yes.” I think it surprised him a little, but I think maybe even asking the question surprised him. I told him I could not come to terms with the idea that black people were denied the priesthood. He said he had no answer for me so we got on our knees and prayed and I got the feeling “Don’t worry about it, for now.” Not what I was expecting or wanting, but I chose to not worry about it. Years later in a conversation with my wife’s very conservative grandfather he said with the same confidence he said everything, that the exclusionary policies were because white people in the church couldn’t handle it. Couldn’t handle that type of equality. I got another strong feeling of “There is your answer.” For me, it was the answer I could accept.

  3. Anonymous

    Great post. I’m also curious about your thoughts on women and the priesthood, and the lack of women in Church leadership.

  4. N. Wilson

    The original line was, “as he died to make men holy, let us die to make them free” – a battle hymn, all the way.

    1. Rick

      Best history of The Battle Hymn is Sarah Vowell’s piece in episode 239 of This American Life. You can find audio and transcript on their website. Look for “Act Two: Teacher Hit Me With A Ruler.”

      I like her analysis of the “live vs. die” debate:

      “…through the years, a civil war of sorts has broken out between those who would die and those who would live. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir sings ‘live’ on their 1959 Grammy Award-winning recording of the song. Joan Baez, leading a sing-along at a black college in Birmingham in 1962, went with the traditional ‘die.’

      “In my opinion, die is the way to go… This the one clear-cut case where you can ask yourself, ‘what would Jesus do,’ and you know the answer. What would Jesus do? Die.”

      The whole piece is a joy to listen to.

  5. Annemarie Garrett

    I grew up in the church, in a very active family. I paid attention in church, for the most part, and knew the answers in Sunday School and Seminary, etc. And I never in my life, ever, heard that “fence-sitters” argument until I was in my 30s and had lived in Utah for several years. Even then, I think I heard it being discussed on the internet– I’ve certainly never heard it over the pulpit. I was horrified when I first heard it. It seemed like a sick joke or something. And every time I hear another person say this is what they were taught, I get that sick feeling again. I like how you simply referred to it as “argleblargle.” That feels about right.

    Nice post, Eric.

    1. admin Post author

      Yeah, argleblargle seemed properly dismissive. It’s certainly not an idea worth taking seriously.

    2. Julie Saunders

      I heard it from a seminary teacher in Oregon, in 2002 or so. Was quite relieved when statements directly refuting that explanation started getting read over the pulpit a few years later at BYU.

  6. Rick

    We talk about the United States being a melting pot, but it’s a segregated salad bar compared to Brazil’s melting pot.

    In the US, we have clear racial (racist?) notions of black and white, and we keep track of our ethnic heritage in fractions, to a ridiculous extent. (A high-school friend was 1/8 Cherokee, and qualified for a Native American scholarship.)

    In Brazil, it’s hard to draw a line between black and white, because there are so many shades of brown in between.

    On my mission in Sao Paulo (1996-97), I spoke to members there who said that back before the 1978 revelation, they had to prepare their four generations of family history before they could get a temple recommend, not so that they had names to take to the temple, but so that they could prove they didn’t have any black ancestors at least that far back.

    Has anybody else heard of this reason for a four-generations chart? Does the notion of four generations tie in to Exodus 20:5, or is it a more recent eugenics concept?

    The first temple in South America was dedicated in Sao Paulo in the fall of 1978. As I understand it, that temple dedication was going to make the four generations issue a pressing concern for a lot more people.

    There certainly were concerns and conversations about race in US during the 1970s that helped drive President Kimball to seek understanding from heaven on the issue. But I like to think that questions of the church’s international growth, spreading the gospel to all of God’s children weighed heavily on the prophet’s mind as well.

  7. Julie Saunders

    The really disturbing thing about the priesthood ban, at least to me, is that the main reason it persisted for so long was due entirely to tradition. There was, at some point, a rumored link to Joseph Smith (since obviously any “real” doctrine has to descend from Joseph Smith), which member historians later refuted as documentation became more clear. Even then, though, nobody could seem to get rid of it. Even David O. McKay, who by all appearances hated the ban, didn’t feel he could lift it in his lifetime. It’s scary how nobody knows exactly where it came from, but once it was there it stuck around precisely *because* it was already there. It’s a perfect illustration of the toxic side of over-reliance on tradition (or conflation of tradition with revelation) within our religion – especially when that tradition coincides with cultural beliefs.

    One of the foundational texts on this is “Mormonism’s Negro Doctrine: An Historical Overview,” by Lester E. Bush from Dialogue vol. 8. The really interesting thing about it is that it was written before the ban was actually lifted (in 1973). There’s lots of new scholarship about the history of the ban coming out now, too, but a lot of them cite this essay so I feel like it’s a good place to start. Here’s a PDF link if anybody’s interested:


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