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Black Mormons

It has often been assumed that the Mormon Church is a church for white people and that black Mormons do not exist within the Church. The opposite is true. Although blacks were not allowed to receive the priesthood until 1978, a number of blacks were baptized and came to Utah with the Mormon pioneers. The Mormon Church was also apposed to slavery and regarded blacks Mormon or not as people with equal rights. Today the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has a growing population among blacks in Africa and all over the world.

Black Mormons in the early Mormon Church.

The first black Mormon baptized was Elijah Abel in 1832 he later came across the plains with Brigham Young's company in 1847.1 Elijah was even given the priesthood and held it until he died. Others were baptized and a number of black Mormons came to Utah, in fact the 1860 Utah Census stated that there were 59 black Mormons living in Utah.

The Mormon Church took a strong stand against slavery, which was extremely unpopular at the time. The Prophet Joseph Smith when asked about the situation of blacks said, "They came into the world slaves mentally and physically. Change their situation with the whites, and they would be like them. They have souls, and are subjects of salvation."2 At the time most people believed that blacks did not have souls and were therefore inferior to whites. Joseph Smith also supported the unpopular view that if blacks were given the same education and situation as whites that their would be no difference between the two races. 

In a letter discussing the subject of slavery, Joseph Smith stated, "It makes my blood boil within me to reflect upon the injustice, cruelty, and oppression of the rulers of the people. When will these things cease to be, and the Constitution and the laws again bear rule?"3 Joseph Smith even ran for President of the United States on an anti-slavery platform.

When slave holders joined the Mormon Church they were told that "if your slaves wish to remain with you, and to go with you, put them not away; but if they choose to leave you, or are not satisfied to remain with you, it is for you to sell them, or let them go free, as your own conscience may direct you."4 Since the laws of the land recognized slavery the Church did not assume responsibility to oppose the laws of the land but did indicate that blacks were people and not just property and should be given the choice whether to remain or leave.

In 1840 the Nauvoo Temple was built. People of every "language", "tongue", and "of every color"5 were encouraged to come and worship in the House of the Lord.

Before Utah was made a state, in 1867, the Deseret Constitution was amended and the words "free, white, male" was eliminated from voting requirements by a vote of "14,000 for and 30 against."6 Which meant that black Mormons as well as any other blacks residing in the area had the right to vote. This right was changed when Utah was made a state and admitted to the United States, since the U.S. did not give blacks the right to vote.

As the issue of Civil Rights in the United States grew the current prophet of the Church Joseph Fielding Smith made a statement concerning the Church's stance about equality for black Mormons and blacks in general. He said, "No church or other organization is more insistent than The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, that the [Blacks] should receive all the rights and privileges that can possibly be given to any other in the true sense of equality as declared in the Declaration of Independence. They should be equal to 'life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness…' In their defense of these privileges the members of the Church will stand."7

Why black Mormons weren't allowed the priesthood.

The exact reason why black Mormons were not allowed the priesthood is unknown. In fact the Lord didn't actually say that blacks were banned from the priesthood but He did allow the ban until He saw fit to instruct his prophet otherwise. Many black Mormons today feel that the Lord allowed the ban because of the persecution the Church would have received at a time when blacks had few rights in the United States. As soon as the Civil Rights Movement in the United States gained valuable grounds and countries in Africa were prepared to receive the gospel, God gave His prophet the revelation concerning black Mormons and the priesthood.

When Spencer W. Kimball became prophet of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints he began to ask the Lord if it was time for black Mormons to receive the priesthood. On June 8, 1978, President Spencer W. Kimball received revelation that the priesthood should be given to every worthy male regardless of race or lineage. From that day forward black Mormons were given the priesthood and allowed to participate in temple ordinances.

Although there were some leaders of the church that can be accused of racist comments they are only human and stating beliefs and practices of the time. Regarding previous policy and statements concerning black Mormons and the priesthood, Bruce R. McConkie said, "Forget everything I have said, or what ... Brigham Young ... or whomsoever has said ... that is contrary to the present revelation. We spoke with a limited understanding and without the light and knowledge that now has come into the world."8

Prior to black Mormons receiving the priesthood the Mormon Church had sent missionaries to Africa, but other than in South Africa missionaries were rejected. But that did not stop the Lord from influencing people and many blacks were converted to the gospel despite not having the formal organization of the Church.

One of these early converts was Joseph William Billy Johnson of Ghana. In 1964 he read the Book of Mormon and believed. He became devoted to spreading the gospel he says, "I heard a voice from heaven speaking to me saying, ‘Johnson, if you will take up my word as I will command you to your people, I will bless you and bless your land.’"9 When the Mormon Church came to Ghana there were 1,000 people prepared by Joseph Johnson who were among the first black Mormons in Africa.

"Another early African convert and pioneer is Anthony Obinna in Nigeria. He related the following story that occurred in the late 1960s: “One night I was sleeping and a tall man came to me [in a dream], took me to one of the most beautiful buildings, and showed me all the rooms.” In 1970 he read an article in an old 1958 Reader’s Digest titled “The March of the Mormons,” which included a picture of the Salt Lake Temple. “It was exactly the same building I had seen in my dream,” he said. Brother Obinna wrote to the Church for LDS literature."10

He shared the message of the Book of Mormon with many others.

Black Mormons in the Church today.

Church members in Africa face poverty, illness, civil unrest, unemployment, political opposition, hopelessness, and other difficulties but continue to press forward and grow despite adversities. As Sylvia Finlayson said after visiting with Saints in Ghana, "they carried a sense of the divine in their lives."1

Despite political persecution black Mormons

in Africa have remained strong. In Ghana during a 1989 ban on the Mormon Church, William Sowah was jailed for practicing his religion. Yet he says about his experience, "I gained a stronger testimony from that experience. The period of the ban allowed Ghanaians to ask a lot of questions about the Church. It was a great opportunity for missionary work. The Church has grown tremendously since that time because many people wanted to know more about the church. Any time the adversary tries to destroy us, the Lord allows that to work in our favor. No one person or force can stop this Church from growing…"11

The Church currently has three temples in Africa: Accra Ghana, Aba Nigeria, and Johannesburg South Africa. The dedication and faith of black Mormons has brought their dreams of forever families sealed within the walls of a Mormon temple to reality. In the year 2000, there were 85,000 black Mormons in West Africa alone. Today there are even more.

There are black Mormons living all over the world. Famous black Mormons include singer Gladys Knight, European popstar Alex Boyé, and retired basketball player Thurl Bailey.

(1) The Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research. Elijah Able. http://www.blacklds.org/mormon/abel.html

(2) Joseph Smith. History of the Church. 5:217-218

(3) Joseph Smith. Letter of the Prophet to John C. Bennett--On Bennett's Correspondence Anent Slavery. History of the Church, 4:544.

(4) Orson Hyde. Millennial Star, February 15, 1851

(5) Times and Seasons, Vol. 1 No. 12 October, 1840.

(6) October 26, 1869, in Brigham Young papers, LDS Church Archives.

(7) Joseph Fielding Smith. Answers to Gospel Questions 2:185

(8) Bruce R. McConkie, "New Revelation on Priesthood," in Priesthood, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1981, 126-127.

(9) Sylvia McMillan Finlayson. Faces of Promise. http://www.ldsmag.com/churchupdate/040130faces.html

(10) E. Dale LeBaron, “Gospel Pioneers in Africa,” Ensign, Aug. 1990, 40

(11) Maurine Jensen Proctor. Joseph W.B. Johnson Ghana's Face of Light. http://www.ldsmag.com/churchupdate/040122light.html

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