Latter-day Saints who were distinct minorities in the LDS Church’s history stepped into the spotlight on June 1 when the contributions of black Mormons were publicly and powerfully celebrated in a global broadcast for the church.
The event was put on by the First Presidency, and it celebrated the 40th anniversary of the 1978 church revelation that allowed black members to receive the priesthood and temple blessings and participate in missionary service.
Block letters emblazoned across a bold orange screen declared unity and welcomed thousands into the Conference Center at Temple Square. The words came from the Doctrine and Covenants: “I say unto you be one.” The inscription — the evening’s theme — was emphasized again and again as performers and speakers took to the stage.
Performers at the event included Grammy-winner Gladys Knight, a choir, the Bonner family and Alex Boyé.
Musical numbers were interspersed with the words of black Mormons who cried as they told the histories of early black Latter-day Saints, many of whom were pioneers.
Black convert Jane Manning James, who trekked across the country with the pioneers, was among the stories featured. According to her biography, James joined the Smith family for several months after arriving in Nauvoo and joined the church soon after. She was driven from Illinois with the rest of the Mormon population and later became one of the founding members of the first black community in Utah.
The event also included the story of Elijah Able, the first black man to be ordained to the priesthood. In an emotional display, speakers described the three faithful missions he served for the church.
According to the church’s website, Elijah Abel also “participated in temple ceremonies in Kirtland, Ohio, and was later baptized as proxy for deceased relatives in Nauvoo, Illinois.”
Both James and Able remained faithful Latter-day Saints until the day they died.
For the event, the Conference Center was decorated in bright colors and traditional tribal patterns. Seated beside the podium were President Russell M. Nelson and members of the Quorum of the Twelve, joined most notably by new faces, all of African decent.
The individuals were later recognized as a committee selected by the First Presidency to help make the celebration a reality.
President Dallin H. Oaks, First Counselor in the First Presidency, acknowledged the pain and suffering the church’s past restriction caused black members even after it was lifted in the 1978 revelation.
Then-church-President Spencer W. Kimball issued a letter to the church dated June 8, 1978 that announced the historic church change for the priesthood — this announcement was read by President N. Eldon Tanner, First Counselor in the First Presidency of the church on Sept. 30, 1978 at the 148th Semiannual General Conference of the church.
“The long-promised day has come when every faithful, worthy man in the church may receive the holy priesthood, with power to exercise its divine authority, and enjoy with his loved ones every blessing that flows therefrom, including the blessings of the temple.”
Speaking about this 1978 revelation, President Oaks said he remembered sitting on a pile of dirt and weeping openly after he received the call. He described it as a moment that will be etched forever in the minds of all LDS members who were adults at the time.
“When we consider what has happened in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and in the lives of its members since 1978, we all have cause for celebration,” President Oaks said.
Oaks encouraged all church members to do their best to look forward to a better future.
“Our determination in this program is to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the revelation on the priesthood by looking forward,” President Oaks said. “As we do, we express special appreciation for our marvelous members of African descent, especially our African-American members, who have persisted in faith and faithfulness through a difficult transition period of fading prejudice.”
President Oaks also recognized the ongoing racism in the United States, some of which happens inside of the church. He called the racist practices that persist among some members a violation of what the church stands for.
The church’s website explains “the structure and organization of the Church encourage(s) racial integration,” something that is reflected in the geographical boundaries of local wards and branches in the church.
“By definition,” the website states, “this means that the racial, economic, and demographic composition of Mormon congregations generally mirrors that of the wider local community.”
President Oaks reminded individuals who participate in this behavior that the revelation was divine instruction pleading all to abandon attitudes of prejudice against any group. Not just race, but economic status, personal beliefs, religion and education.
The event’s first musical number featured a family in Africa. The family clung to one another, singing and dancing to the pounding of drums until they were yanked apart by a violent force. Some stayed behind and reached desperately for the others who were pulled away to a lifetime of slavery.
At the conclusion of the evening, President Nelson said he wished they could have an encore.
“These talented performers have inspired each one of us,” he said, calling for “bridges of cooperation,” not “walls of segregation.”
“Differences in culture, language, gender, race and nationality fade into insignificance as the faithful enter the covenant path and come unto our beloved Redeemer,” President Nelson said. “Ultimately, we realize that only the comprehension of the true Fatherhood of God can bring full appreciation of the true brotherhood of men and the true sisterhood of women.”