1978 Revelation on Priesthood
By Maurine Jensen Proctor
Editor-in-Chief and co-founder of
If you had already been born and were a member of the Church, June 9, 1978, you remember in vivid detail exactly where you were the minute you heard that President Spencer W. Kimball had received a revelation extending the priesthood to all worthy males.
Elder Marion D. Hanks, an emeritus General Authority who was there said, “Hallelujah. I thank God I lived long enough to see this day.”
Church historian, Leonard Arrington, said that within five minutes “my son Carl Wayne telephoned from New York City to say he had heard the news. I was in the midst of sobbing with gratitude for this answer to our prayers and could hardly speak with him. I was thrilled and electrified.
Rarely has news of an event spread faster than this one, taken the breath away of a people, most of whom had been long pained by the denial of the priesthood to those of African descent.
Newspapers delayed their editions to add the announcement. Time and Newsweek stopped their presses on their weekend editions. The New York Times made it a front-page story, and newspapers that had been neutral or hostile to the Church carried laudatory editorials. U.S. President Jimmy Carter commended President Spencer W. Kimball for “compassionate prayerfulness and courage.”
Elder Hanks said,
“All of us had the sense of discomfort at the continuing policy that kept good and honorable people from the blessings of their possibilities.He remembers being on the top of a hill in Viet Nam, long before the revelation, talking to a young black member of the Church who had just had his legs blown off, holding his hand and weeping. “All I could say to him was that one day there will be additional information on this subject, and when that happens the Lord will give it to the president of the Church.” President Kimball had long been sensitive to this issue.
For instance, in March 1976, he was present for the laying of the cornerstone of the Sao Paulo, Brazil temple and met Ruda and Helvecio Martins, devoted black members, converted in 1972.
They had donated money and time to the temple, knowing full well that as things stood, they would not be receiving its blessings. The bank account, which they had carefully saved for their son’s mission, went to another young man who would be able to serve. Seeing their devotion - and many others like them - moved and grieved President Kimball.
President Kimball wasn’t the first prophet to ponder and pray over the exclusion policy of the priesthood. Other prophets had made pronouncements to the effect that someday the priesthood would be made available to all worthy male members.
Wilford Woodruff had written, “But the day will come when all that race will be redeemed and possess all the blessings which we now have.”
President McKay had said, “Sometime in God’s eternal plan, the Negro will be given the right to hold the Priesthood.” He had prayed earnestly to the Lord for permission to rescind the exclusion,
Harold B. Lee, shortly before his death, spent three days and nights fasting in the upper room of the temple, praying earnestly to the Lord for guidance on this matter without receiving an answer.
But in the inscrutable timing of the Lord, the revelation would come later, when Spencer W. Kimball was the prophet.
President Kimball had a long record of reaching out to people of many ethnicities. In his early years as an apostle, his assignment had been to the Indian nations, adding to his sensitivity.
Beginning in 1976 as the prophet, he began a systematic routine of praying, fasting and supplicating the Lord on this matter.
In Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, compiled before the 1978 revelation, he affirms,
“The doctrine or policy has not varied in my memory. I know it could. I know the Lord could change his policy and release the ban and forgive the possible error which brought about the deprivation.He also acknowledged that he didn’t understand the basis of the exclusion.
“The things of God cannot be understood by the spirit of men. . . Admittedly, our direct and positive information is limited. I have wished the Lord had given us a little more clarity in the matter.”It was, then, with both keen desire, and awe and reverence for God, that he began his heart-felt petitions, not believing for a moment that the matter was merely in his hands to make a change.
The spring of 1978 found the First Presidency and the Twelve discussing the subject often in the upper rooms of the temple at their Thursday meetings.
According to Joseph F. McConkie, President Kimball did not act in isolation on the matter. He freely sought the feelings of his counselors and the Quorum of the Twelve.
In March of 1978 he invited any of the Twelve who desired to do so to make any expressions they desired to him in writing so that he could carefully consider them. Three members of that Quorum responded to this invitation, Elders Monson, Packer, and McConkie.
Elder McConkie’s memo centered on the doctrinal basis for conferring the Melchizedek Priesthood on the Blacks. After the revelation was received he freely shared with his family the scriptural chain of thought that he had suggested to President Kimball. The power of it was in its simplicity. He simply saw things in passages of scriptures that the rest of us had conditioned ourselves not to see.
President Kimball described his own process of seeking revelation this way:
“I remember very vividly that day after day I walked to the temple and ascended to the fourth floor where we have our solemn assemblies and where we have our meetings of the Twelve and the First Presidency.
President Gordon B. Hinckley said in an October 1988 Ensign,
“I was not present when John the Baptist conferred the Aaronic Priesthood. I was not present when Peter, James, and John conferred the Melchizedek Priesthood. “But I was present and was a participant and a witness to what occurred on Thursday, June 1, 1978. My memory is clear concerning the events of that day.
Leonard Arrington, who interviewed many of those present said,
“At the end of the heavenly manifestation President Kimball, weeping for joy, confronted the church members, many of them also sobbing, and asked if they sustained this heavenly instruction. Embracing, all nodded vigorously and jubilantly their sanction. There had been a startling and commanding revelation from God—an ineffable experience.”An official announcement of the revelation, dated June 8, 1978, was announced to the press the next day, on June 9.
Arrington wrote, “Here was indisputable evidence of God’s presence and direction in these latter days—divine reaffirmation of the faith and values of our church.”
To all general and local priesthood officers of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints throughout the world:
This revelation had an immediate and tremendous impact on the Church as an eternal gate was thrown open for people here and beyond the veil.
The Spirit which had been poured out upon the prophet had also been moving and lingering among many Africans to prepare them to receive the gospel.
Dale LeBaron interviewed a man in Ghana named Joseph W.B. Johnson who had been converted after prayerfully reading the Book of Mormon in 1964.
Brother Johnson told President LeBaron,
“One early morning, while about to prepare for my daily work, I saw the heavens open and angels with trumpets singing songs of praise unto God.When the missionaries arrived fourteen years later, there were already many unbaptized congregations that Brother Johnson had organized, calling themselves The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
As great as the significance of the revelation was for new growth, no one felt its impact more personally than long-time African-American church members like Darius Gray, who had sometimes been worn thin sorting out the issues of his identity as a black man excluded from the highest blessings in the Church he loved.
He had taken the missionary discussions and committed to baptism in 1964, but somehow no one had gotten around to tell him about the priesthood exclusion until the night before he was to be baptized during his final interview with the missionaries.
“I think everyone thought someone else was doing it—or hoped they were. I think everyone was chicken to tell me, but the mission president had made it clear that I could not be baptized unless I understood the restriction.The revelation on the priesthood was a balm that healed many wounds.
Now, Darius is president of the Genesis group and said this 25th anniversary celebrating the revelation is about forward looking, not just remembering.
He asked members of three choirs who were coming together for a June 8 performance why this revelation matters so much, since none of them were of African descent.
Their answer was this: it lifted a burden for all of us. Before, we were divided by race, kept at arm’s length. Somehow, the revelation made it easier for us to be family which makes it easier for us to love one another.
“I believe the effect of the priesthood revelation of 1978 allows us to be family more easily and therefore to do nothing less than be prepared to help usher in the second coming of the Savior.”