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
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
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
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.
(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