This is second and final entry in a series of posts from guest Shannon Flynn on missionary work, race, and the Priesthood Ban that draws on his experience as a missionary in Brazil from 1977-1979. See Part I here.
The final document in this series is a scan of a letter that we missionaries received at the end of February 1978. The handwritten note is from the Mission President at the time, Roger B. Bietler.
This letter indicates to me that there was beginning to be a softening of what had been, at various times, a hardened position. By the time this letter was written, the date of the completion of the temple in Sao Paulo would have been known at church headquarters. It is my estimation that the temple dedication was the signal event that provided the final impetus to change church policy/doctrine regarding blacks and the priesthood. There would have been a flood of people entering that temple whose linage had not been thoroughly checked and such a situation could have caused a significant problem. What is known to few, is that a number of men in Brazil before June 1978 had discovered a partial black linage after having been ordained and served in many leadership capacities. I know of one story in particular where Elder Grant Bangerter had to travel to Belo Horizonte to release a stake president because that stake president had discovered, through diligent family history work, that he was partially descended from black people. I don’t know what percentage it was, but it couldn’t have been much. The stake president had informed Elder Bangerter, who in turn had consulted with higher authorities in Salt Lake and then went to Belo Horizonte to reorganize the stake. Nothing was ever said to the stake members and it was handled as delicately as possible. Nothing was done to “remove” his priesthood, he was just asked to not perform anymore ordinances or serve in leadership capacities. I was told Elder Bangerter was personally mortified to have to do that to this man but his personal discomfort was outweighed by his need to maintain loyalty to his ecclesiastical superiors and fidelity to established policy.
I had occasion to interact with two other men in the months immediately preceding the June 1978 announcement. The bishop of the Maua ward had a daughter that was married just a few months before June 1978 and she married a man of color. He was very obviously black and he had been recently baptized. I can only imagine what must have gone through the heads of her parents, knowing what lay in store. They all had that burden of believing at the time, that this situation would be forever. Happily and somewhat ironically, that man eventually became the Bishop of that ward. I was much more directly involved in the second case. There was a woman living within the ward boundaries that was anxious to get baptized and I soon came to find out that she was a sister of the president of the Sao Paulo west stake, who also lived in that same ward. It became apparent to me that little had been done to effect the baptism of this woman due to the fact that she was married to a black man. However being somewhat brash, I took the opposite view. I did everything in my power to get her baptized, which included teaching and baptizing her husband. The mission president asked that we make a sincere effort to baptize them as an intact family rather than a single sister. No one had even asked him if he wanted to be taught, but upon asking he said he did. They became another case of people joining the church in Brazil with no realistic hope of holding the priesthood or going to the temple. This all occurred late April 1978.
The couple had two sons who eventually went on missions and the woman, as of 2008, was a temple worker in the Sao Paulo temple. Not all of the stories turned out in a happy way. While awaiting a visa to Brazil I served for 4 ½ months in the Texas San Antonio mission. We taught a single mother and her son. When we informed them that the son, who was obviously black, though the mother was not, wouldn’t be able to hold the priesthood when he turned twelve, discontinued the lessons immediately. I saw both sides of the equation. There were instances of racism in the church in Brazil before 1978, perpetrated by both Americans and Brazilians and there continued to be after, in some cases many years after, but in my view most of the injustices came from ignorance, not malice. No missionary that I knew of had any particular hard feelings against black people, however we were completely unprepared in both history and doctrinal understanding to mount any legitimate challenge to a century old policy. The historical research that helped lead to a change had just begun at that time and the results were not widespread. I am convinced that the temple dedication in Sao Paulo was the triggering event in the change.