LDS blacks, scholars cheer church's essay on priesthood

Published: Sunday, June 8 2014 3:15 p.m. MDT

Darius Gray, center, displays the special citation given to him by Ronald O. Barney, right, executive director of the Mormon History Association. Richard E. Bennett, left, this year's association president, applauds.

R. Scott Lloyd

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SALT LAKE CITY — Darius Gray was working in his Zellerbach Paper Co. office on Third East one summer on a Thursday in 1978 when Dixie Baker, who worked in the paper company's credit office, poked her head through his doorway.

"The church is giving Negroes the priesthood," she said.

Gray didn't even look up. He thought it was nonsense. The grandson of a slave born in Missouri before the Civil War, Gray had joined the faith to which Baker referred — The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — in 1964, and the church's restriction on blacks receiving the priesthood was a sensitive subject.

He thought Baker was making a poor joke in poor taste, and he told her so. When she insisted she wasn't joking, he growled at her to leave.

Baker finally convinced Gray by telling him she'd heard the rumor on the phone while talking with a representative of one of Zellerbach's largest customers — the LDS Church.

Gray's journalism roots kicked in. He turned on the TV and radio in his office but found no news, so he went straight to the source. He called the office of LDS Church President Spencer W. Kimball. President Kimball's secretary told Gray the man he considered a prophet had just left but confirmed it was true, a revelation had been received and the priesthood would be available to all worthy males regardless of race or ethnicity.

The past six months have brought renewed focus to the history of the ban. LDS Church leadership disavowed old theories about its origins in an essay released in December. And on Friday night, the Mormon History Association honored Gray, who played a role in creating the essay, with a special citation for outstanding contributions to Mormon history.

New reason to rejoice

Worthy black men began to receive the priesthood immediately after the announcement the church made that Thursday — June 8 — 36 years ago when Gray couldn't believe what Baker was telling him.

Worthy black men and women also gained full access to LDS temple ordinances they believe are essential to eternal salvation. They were overjoyed. Still, many say today that old teachings about blacks, teachings that had been used to justify the priesthood restriction before it was lifted, have persisted among a minority of Mormons until now.

That's why many black Latter-day Saints rejoiced on Dec. 6 when the church issued a crystal-clear disavowal of those theories. It was part of an essay approved by the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and posted under the title "Race and the Priesthood" on the church's website.

"Today," the essay says, "the church disavows the theories advanced in the past that black skin is a sign of divine disfavor or curse, or that it reflects actions in a premortal life; that mixed-race marriages are a sin; or that blacks or people of any other race or ethnicity are inferior in any way to anyone else. Church leaders today unequivocally condemn all racism, past and present, in any form."

"How else could you feel but great?" said Don Harwell, president of the church's Genesis Group for black Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City. "They've renounced the silliness that blacks were fence-sitters and less valiant (in the premortal existence), all the things some members had used to justify the racism."

The essay was one of the first pieces in a broader effort by church leaders to use the Gospel Topics pages on LDS.org to help members and people investigating the faith find the best scholarly information available about the faith's doctrine and church history.

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