Universalism, Mormon History, and the 1978 Revelation

By June 8, 2009

June 8, 1978

To all general and local priesthood officers of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints throughout the world:
Dear Brethren:

As we have witnessed the expansion of the work of the Lord over the earth, we have been grateful that people of many nations have responded to the message of the restored gospel, and have joined the Church in ever-increasing numbers. This, in turn, has inspired us with a desire to extend to every worthy member of the Church all of the privileges and blessings which the gospel affords.

Aware of the promises made by the prophets and presidents of the Church who have preceded us that at some time, in God’s eternal plan, all of our brethren who are worthy may receive the priesthood, and witnessing the faithfulness of those from whom the priesthood has been withheld, we have pleaded long and earnestly in behalf of these, our faithful brethren, spending many hours in the Upper Room of the Temple supplicating the Lord for divine guidance.

He has heard our prayers, and by revelation has confirmed that the long-promised day has come when every faithful, worthy man in the Church may receive the holy priesthood, with power to exercise its divine authority, and enjoy with his loved ones every blessing that flows therefrom, including the blessings of the temple. Accordingly, all worthy male members of the Church may be ordained to the priesthood without regard for race or color. Priesthood leaders are instructed to follow the policy of carefully interviewing all candidates for ordination to either the Aaronic or the Melchizedek Priesthood to insure that they meet the established standards for worthiness.

We declare with soberness that the Lord has now made known his will for the blessing of all his children throughout the earth who will hearken to the voice of his authorized servants, and prepare themselves to receive every blessing of the gospel.

Sincerely yours,

SPENCER W. KIMBALL
N. ELDON TANNER
MARION G. ROMNEY

The First Presidency (emphasis added)

One of the most striking aspects of Official Declaration 2 is the repeated emphasis on the Gospel’s universalism. When discussing the origins of the priesthood ban and the revelation that removed it, I think there is a tendency to forget or downplay that this universalism has been present since the church’s founding. During the 1970s, when Newell G. Bringhurst was researching his dissertation on anti-black beliefs within Mormonism from 1830-1880, he initially did not include Mormon universalism within his discussion, but the 1978 revelation forced him to reexamine his approach:

Suddenly and unexpectedly in June 1978, Latter-day Saint officials announced the repeal of their exclusionary practice of black priesthood denial. In the light of this dramatic change, I reexamined some of my previous assumptions revising, somewhat, my study by considering not only the evolution of Mormon antiblack attitudes and practices, which predominated throughout the course of Latter-day Saint history, but also those positive Mormon concepts of Christian universalism, which existed from Mormonism’s earliest days. These universalistic concepts ultimately paved the way for the repeal of black priesthood denial and have been a primary impetus for the current extraordinary appeal of Mormonism in nonwhite parts of the world, including black Africa (xiv).

Bringhurst makes due on his promise, and universalism provides an important subtheme throughout his path-breaking 1981 study, Saints, Slaves, and Blacks: The Changing Place of Black People Within Mormonism. He thereby provides a framework within which to form a counternarrative of sorts, helping readers to understand not only the dark elements of our past, but also the positive streaks that ultimately provided a foundation upon which momentous revelatory change occurred within Mormonism thirty-one years ago today. As we ponder the meaning of the revelation, let us give thanks that the Lord “denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female, and he remembereth the heathen: all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile” (2 Nephi 26:33).

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Modern Mormonism Race


Comments

  1. Thanks for these thoughts, David, on what is a happpy anniversary indeed.

    Comment by SC Taysom — June 8, 2009 @ 6:25 am

  2. Thanks.

    Comment by Edje — June 8, 2009 @ 9:59 am

  3. Thanks David, for the reminder and the thoughtful post.

    Comment by Christopher — June 8, 2009 @ 10:06 am

  4. Thanks, David.

    Comment by Chris H. — June 8, 2009 @ 10:43 am

  5. Thanks for sharing this, David; what a great way to start the morning.

    Comment by Ben — June 8, 2009 @ 11:00 am

  6. Thank you, David.

    Comment by Jared T — June 8, 2009 @ 11:04 am

  7. Thank you.

    I was born June 8, 1948. It was a glorious 30th birthday for me made unforgettable when that Thursday evening in a Stake Priesthood meeting in Twin Falls, Idaho they announced the news over the pulpit, the first I had heard of the change.

    Comment by Walt Eddy — June 8, 2009 @ 11:25 am

  8. Hallelujah! Thanks David.

    Comment by Randy B. — June 8, 2009 @ 10:32 am

  9. Amen. Thanks, David.

    Comment by Ryan T — June 8, 2009 @ 2:03 pm

  10. I didn’t want to post a blog myself on this subject today, because I feel that I am identified a bit too much with race issues in the Church, but I hoped someone would. THANK YOU.

    Comment by Margaret Young — June 8, 2009 @ 7:49 pm

  11. I joined the Church in 1975 and was fascinated with church history at the time. I have never understood people who claimed that Mormons were prejudiced or anti-black.

    If you actually study the history of the church and actual American history you will find that one of the main reasons for Mormons being driven out of both Missouri and Nauvoo, IL had a great more to do with their political voting power and anti-slavery beliefs than it had to do with their religion.

    Yes, many people who have written negative things about the church will tell you that it was about polygamy and their strange religious beliefs, but then you will also find that there are people who still claim that the Mormons were rapists and pillagers as well. (Imagine my surprise when I visited Missouri this past year to find state sponsored websites that still claim the Mormons were driven from the state because of their pillaging and rape?)

    I know this is not true, at least if there were any Mormons who committed these kinds of crimes; they were certainly never sanctioned by the church and would have been punished if it were made known to the church. But it was much easier for the politicians of the day to use that against the Latter-day Saints than to admit that they were afraid the Mormons might vote out slavery (in Missouri) or questionable politicians in IL.

    I believe we should always remember that the early Latter-day Saints always treated blacks with the same respect as anyone else because that was certainly more than the rest of the country did at the time. And for any Latter-day Saint that has ever used the revelation about the Priesthood as a support to be prejudiced, then that person was in the wrong, as the church has never taught that. God may have held back the priesthood from them for a period of time, but he always taught, through his church and its leaders, that all men and women were equal in the sight of God.

    I had to express these thoughts because so many times it feels as though members of the church are apologizing for something that other people “claim we believed”.

    The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is not now, nor has it ever been prejudice. Having said that however, it is certainly possible that there are those among the membership now and in the past that have misunderstood doctrine and may themselves be in error and could be prejudice, but that sin is upon their head, not the church.

    And we can only pray for them and teach all mankind that The Church of Jesus Christ is no ?respecter of persons? and that Christ loves all of his children. We may not always understand why God does what he does, or directs us to do the things he directs us to do, but we can know that it is ultimately for the good of his children, because he loves us and wants us to be like Him.

    Comment by Valerie F — June 11, 2009 @ 12:30 pm

  12. Interesting thoughts, Valerie, thanks for sharing.

    Comment by Jared T — June 11, 2009 @ 1:27 pm

  13. Hi Valerie. I’m glad that you enjoyed the post and that you are so passionate about church history. Mormon history is fascinating and church members would benefit from studying our past.

    As I stated in the post, I do believe that from the early years of the church, our leaders have argued that the Gospel is available to all. However, for much of our history, many Latter-day Saints (both leaders and ordinary members) have held racist and prejudicial attitudes toward African Americans and other races. The priesthood ban was initiated by, and later supported with, anti-black attitudes that thankfully our leaders have since condemned. While it is important to challenge those who would misrepresent us, we need to be careful not to forget the pain that racist ideologies have caused among our black brothers and sisters.

    Take a look at this recent post that reproduces several documents from church publications. You’ll see that Mormon racism is not something our enemies have invented, and arguing that “the church has never taught” racism is unfortunately, if inadvertantly, covering a wound that needs to be acknowledged and healed.

    Comment by David G. — June 11, 2009 @ 3:09 pm

  14. David, this makes the struggle to do that worthwhile, all by itself. Thank you.

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — June 11, 2009 @ 3:35 pm

  15. Thank you, Ardis. I think your post will continue to be helpful in situations like these.

    Comment by David G. — June 12, 2009 @ 8:03 am

  16. […] Universalism, Mormon History and the 1978 Revelation […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Teaching About the Priesthood Ban and Official Declaration 2 in Sunday School — December 7, 2009 @ 8:27 pm


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