SALT LAKE CITY — Lester Bush said Thursday night he couldn't imagine the future positive historical developments for blacks in the LDS Church when he wrote his landmark 1973 history about the restriction on giving blacks the priesthood.
"Almost everything has changed, and all for the good, beginning with the priesthood revelation of 1978," he said while delivering the keynote address for "Black, White and Mormon: A Conference on the Evolving Status of Black Saints within the Mormon Fold" to about 200 people in the Dumke Auditorium at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts on the campus of the University of Utah.
The revelation immediately led to blacks being ordained to the priesthood and entering temples in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Other milestones include the calling of three black general authorities, African-American stake presidents in the deep South and the creation of 26 African missions and five African stakes other than those in South Africa.
Black LDS membership also has grown from a few thousand to more than half a million.
"Those developments individually and collectively far exceed what I saw possible in 1973," Bush said.
But 37 years after the priesthood revelation, Bush noted there still is no African-American general authority, some Latter-day Saints continue to believe old folklore about blacks, and many Mormons don't know or acknowledge that the ban originated with Brigham Young.
Bush's article was published in the Spring 1973 edition of Dialogue. Titled "Mormonism's Negro Doctrine: An Historical Overview," his thorough history included 20 pages detailing 219 footnotes.
University of Utah professor Paul Reeve said the article was one of the forces at work in 1978, when then-church President Spencer W. Kimball, who had read and marked up Bush's article and had been praying about the restriction for 15 years, announced he had received a revelation ending it.
Bush corrected the old narrative that the restriction began with Joseph Smith. He showed they began with Brigham Young's 1852 speeches to the Utah Legislature. Bush's article was a source for the church's landmark 2013 Gospel Topics essay "Race and the Priesthood," about the history of the policy.
That official essay, approved by the church's governing First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, disavowed "the theories advanced in the past that black skin is a sign of divine disfavor or curse, or that it reflects unrighteous 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."
Bush said that was "by far the most forthright statement" from the church that there is no evidence Joseph Smith denied the priesthood to any black man and that Brigham Young announced the restrictions.
"I didn't think I knew better than church leaders about the subject of blacks and the priesthood," he said about his article. "I did think I knew the history better than what had been published to that point. I didn’t think my article would lead to the end of the priesthood ban. Instead, I thought it would lead to the historical department of the church being tasked to develop the story more fully."
That didn't happen until recent years, culminating in the Gospel Topics essay.
Brigham Young "publicly announced that men of black African descent could no longer be ordained to the priesthood," Bush said, adding that Young also said that year that in the future, black church members would "have (all) the privilege and more" enjoyed by other members.
Bush said it is important for Mormons to acknowledge that Young was wrong about blacks without diminishing his "substantial accomplishments in establishing a Mormon kingdom in the West or successfully leading the LDS Church through some of its greatest challenges."
That Bush's lecture Thursday was the annual Sterling M. McMurrin Lecture on Religion and Culture added symmetry to the evening and more than 60 years of history on the subject.
McMurrin, who served as U.S. Commissioner of Education during the Kennedy Administration, said that in 1954, then-LDS Church President David O. McKay told him the restriction on blacks receiving the priesthood never had been a church doctrine but was a church practice or policy which "will someday be changed."
That same year, for the first time known to historians, McKay inquired of God whether the ban should be lifted.
The McMurrin lecture supports serious and knowledgeable study of religion and honors the late scholar.
The conference continues Friday with multiple panels considering current and past challenges experienced by African-American Mormons in their wards, at BYU and the inner-city.
Bush's lecture, "Looking Back, Looking Forward: Mormonism's Negro Doctrine 42 Years Later," and the rest of the conference will be available for online streaming in approximately one week at www.thc.utah.edu.