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Book shares life and times of an African-American Mormon

Published: Thursday, April 21 2011 4:30 a.m. MDT

Two unique events in the late 1980s inspired Keith Hamilton to eventually quit a prestigious job and dedicate himself to self-publishing a one-of-a-kind book about his life and doctrinal views surrounding the 1978 priesthood revelation.

The lawyer believes he was born to have certain experiences and share them in his book, "Last Laborer: Thoughts and Reflections of a Black Mormon."

"The details of my story are unique. How does a black kid born in the Jim Crow South at the beginning of the Civil Rights era — the grandson of a Southern Baptist minister — end up being a Mormon in Utah? My autobiography tells that story," Hamilton said. "How does a black person, even a Mormon, overcome the historical relationship between the church and blacks? If you look at the parable and scriptures, things I have laid out in the book, I think it will help people come to a better understanding."

Two events

Seated at a table in a West Valley City conference room, Hamilton leaned back in his chair and began the interview by providing background information.

The great-grandson of a slave possibly owned by the family of American statesman Alexander Hamilton, Keith Hamilton was born in Virginia in 1958. As a boy, he attended segregated schools, and both parents died by the time he was 14. He was raised by relatives in North Carolina and attended North Carolina State University.

Hamilton joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1980 while attending college and served a mission to Puerto Rico. He returned to become the first African-American to graduate from BYU law school and joined the U.S. Navy in 1986.

Those two important events occurred in 1988 and 1989, when Hamilton was stationed in San Francisco. He was called to serve in the Bay Ward bishopric the same year the church celebrated the 10th anniversary of President Spencer W. Kimball's 1978 revelation announcement, which extended the priesthood and temple blessings to all worthy male members of the church. Reporters asked Hamilton, one of few African-American church leaders at the time, about the historic revelation.

"I joined the church in 1980," he said. "I had heard rumors about the pre-1978 issues, but the missionaries explained things had changed. The issue has always been settled in my mind."

A short time later, stake president Quentin L. Cook, now a member of the Quorum of the Twelve, called Hamilton to be the bishop of the Bay Ward. One day, two Caucasian women came to his office with some deep concerns about the church extending the priesthood to African-Americans.

"One wrote letters to church headquarters," Hamilton said. "She had a really hard time with it, to the point she couldn't reconcile and her activity waned. She was the first to present to me what people were saying about different theories for the previous denial of the priesthood. I told them I would look into it. I wanted to provide an answer."

During his next trip to Utah, the lawyer did some heavy research into the matter. When he returned to visit with his two troubled members, he mentioned wanting to share what he had learned in an article from the Ensign magazine. The idea for the article eventually morphed into "Last Laborer."

"That article, some 20 years later, became the genesis of my book," Hamilton said. "It got bigger and bigger and more in-depth until it became a book."

Like Ammon

An expression of relief swept over Hamilton's face as he reflected on how everything came together. He was grateful for the journey but glad it was over.

For two decades, he compiled material here and made notes there but found excuses not to write while pursuing his career and raising a family. Finally in 2009, while attending a conference as a member of the Utah Board of Pardons and Parole, Hamilton visited the Sacred Grove near Palmyra, N.Y., and had a spiritual experience.

"It was clear to me what I needed to do. When I came home, I made preparations to leave my job," he said.

Hamilton felt impressed to quit his job with the parole board and self-publish his book. Some questioned his decision, but a few months later the lawyer resigned and focused on becoming an author. He had faith if he dedicated his time, talents and means to advancing the Lord's work among his people, he and his family would be blessed.

"It was a great experience," Hamilton said. "It was a struggle, but the Lord provided. We didn't know it would take as long as it did, but we had miracles. In my family, we feel like we consecrated our lives to this effort."

The book's foreword is written by former Utah Jazz player Thurl Bailey, a longtime friend of Hamilton.

Hamilton named his publishing company Ammon Works after his Book of Mormon hero. In the Book of Mormon, Ammon rejected the chance to be king and went with his brethren on a 14-year mission to the Lamanites. Despite many hardships, Ammon and the missionaries were courageous and converted thousands.

"He represents this idea that through love and service, you can overcome cultural differences," Hamilton said. "I feel like Ammon. I represent a cultural change that has had to overcome the traditions of their fathers. Conversely, I also feel like a Lamanite because others have been like Ammon to me and converted me through love and service."

The Last Laborer

Finally, Hamilton leaned forward in his chair to describe the book's central message.

In Hamilton's research, he found a talk by Elder Bruce R. McConkie, "All Are Alike Unto God," delivered at a CES Symposium at BYU in August 1978. In the talk, Elder McConkie referenced the parable of the laborers in the vineyard (Matthew 20) and related it to the 1978 priesthood revelation.

"I was taught that God was a fair God, a loving God," Hamilton said. "The parable touched me like when Joseph (Smith) read James. A whole new world opened to me. That became the focal point of my attempt to give some thought to this issue. … When you consider the timing, that God has never given all his blessings to all his children at the same time, and that 1978 was the first time the priesthood was given to all worthy males, when you look at it that way, it leads you in a different direction. God is in control."

Hamilton wrote his book with the message that everyone is now an 11th-hour laborer in preparation for the second coming of Jesus Christ.

He hopes his story and thoughts will help bring people, especially African-Americans, closer to the Savior.

"I hope something in there will resonate with them," he said. "Maybe something has hurt them, caused suffering, but maybe they will say, 'This guy was able to hang in there.' Maybe they have issues with the '78 revelation and this causes them to say, 'I never looked at it that way before. I never went to the Lord on this, but I am going to go to him now.'"

"Last Laborer" is available at Deseret Book, along with www.lastlaborer.com and www.keithnhamilton.com.

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