Guest Post: From the Archives: Missionary Work, Race, and the Priesthood and Temple Ban in Brazil, circa 1977-78 (Part II)

By April 3, 2015

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.

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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.

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Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Modern Mormonism From the Archives International Mormonism Race


Comments

  1. Thanks again, Shannon. I remember in southern France in 1974 working with a woman who had one black son and two younger white sons. She’d progressed through all of the discussions but when informed of the priesthood ban said, “How can I tell one of my sons that he isn’t as worthy as his brothers?” And she stopped the process there.

    Comment by Gary Bergera — April 3, 2015 @ 7:58 am

  2. Thanks, Shannon. Like yesterday’s post, this is really quite interesting. Did your mission president provide any other direction to you all with the letter? As you note, that’s a move toward a more ambiguous approach, and I imagine that became even more so in the minds of youthful missionaries.

    Comment by Christopher — April 3, 2015 @ 10:46 am

  3. It’s interesting to note that in fall 1977, James E.Faust, president of the International Mission, was sending priesthood manuals to Ghana.

    Comment by Russell — April 3, 2015 @ 12:38 pm

  4. Christopher
    I don’t remember that we were given any specific instructions about determining linage at anytime. We were just like most missions, in that senior companions taught junior companions, district and zone leaders had their say. At least that was the way things worked out in every day life. My strong recollection is that there was not even a hint of a policy change before hand. I talked with my mission president Roger Beitler before his passing and he told me of the meeting where he learned of the change. I am not sure if all of the mission presidents were there, probably just the two in Sao Paulo. Additionally all other senior Brazilian church authorities that could be rounded up quickly – met at the area offices. They were just told straight out, with no lead up. He said there was some hallelujahs and hand clapping and a fair amount of weeping. He could tell from the looks on others faces that they all had instant mental pictures of the faces of several people besides their own families who they would call as soon as they had permission to do so. All of those faces were black, who were told that their lives had just changed. He are the others felt like it was one of greatest experiences of their lives.

    Comment by Shannon — April 3, 2015 @ 1:07 pm

  5. Thanks for posting the February 1978 letter from the First Presidency. This fits right in chronologically with the change of instruction from my Mission President in Porto Alegre. He did not share the letter with as he modified our policies (leading at least one of our Brazilian elders to believe the Mission President may have been “apostatizing”)

    My version of this time in Brazil is at http://www.moderatebutpassionate.com/p/mormonism-and-race.html
    and thanks for citing to my posting at Keepa!

    Comment by Grant — April 4, 2015 @ 8:04 am


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