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Why the Mormon Church Finally Let Black Men Into the Priesthood

3 minute read

In the 1970s, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had a problem. The priesthood—which, as TIME later explained, ” is not a clergy rank but a status achieved by nearly all male members”—was denied to black Mormons. The Church’s rules, which had been codified in the years before the Civil War, seemed increasingly out of step with the rest of America.

Despite increasingly loud calls to change the practice, the Church dug in for most of the decade. Shortly after athletes began to protest games with Brigham Young University, “Mormon elders reaffirmed their belief that blacks cannot be admitted to the priesthood,” TIME reported in 1970. The article went on to explain why that belief was so strongly held:

Mormon belief depends largely on the writings of Prophet Joseph Smith, the church’s 19th century founder. Though Smith’s first book of revelations, the Book of Mormon, clearly states that “the Lord denieth none that come unto him, black and white,” in The Pearl of Great Price, Smith’s later translation of revelations supposedly made to Moses and Abraham, he took a dimmer view. Smith there concluded that Negroes are the descendants of both Cain, the Bible’s first murderer, and Ham, the disrespectful son of Noah; the reason for their exclusion from the priesthood is “the mark of Cain.” Though racist 19th century Christian preachers once advanced similar arguments, the Mormons go farther, maintaining that in a spiritual “preexistence” blacks were neutral bystanders when other spirits chose sides during a fight between God and Lucifer. For that failure of courage, they were condemned to become the accursed descendants of Cain.

Amending that policy would take specific instruction from God, not exactly the easiest thing to come by—but it happened. On this day, June 9, in 1978, the Deseret News carried the breaking news that “every faithful, worthy man in the Church may receive the holy priesthood.”

“The church leaders said they had spent many hours in the Upper Room of the Salt Lake City Temple,” TIME reported the following week. “Eventually God ‘confirmed that the long-promised day has come.'”

Relatively few people were directly affected by the ruling—TIME estimated that about .025% of Mormons at the time were black—but it was still a milestone for the religion. Women, however, are still not eligible for the priesthood—no matter their race.

Read the full story from 1978, here in the TIME Vault: Revelation

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Write to Lily Rothman at lily.rothman@time.com