SALT LAKE CITY — Thirty years have passed, but Heber G. Wolsey still cries when he recalls the day the Mormon church abandoned a policy that had kept black men out of the priesthood.
“It was one of the greatest days of my life,” said Wolsey, who was head of public affairs at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
On June 8, 1978, Wolsey was called to a secret rendezvous with N. Eldon Tanner, a member of the church’s First Presidency, in a tunnel beneath the Salt Lake City temple.
He was handed a slip of paper: “The long-promised day has come when every faithful, worthy man in the church may receive the holy priesthood … without regard for race or color.”
“I started to bawl,” Wolsey recalled, his eyes again welling with tears. “It’s something we’d all been praying for a long, long time.”
Latter-day Saints marked the 30th anniversary last Sunday with an evening celebration of words and music in the Salt Lake City Tabernacle.
Heralded as a revelation from God to church President Spencer W. Kimball, the four-paragraph statement gave blacks full membership in the church for the first time after nearly 130 years.
Some say it was the most significant change in church policy since Mormons abandoned polygamy in 1890 to gain statehood for Utah.
Unlike other religions, the Mormon priesthood is not a set of trained clerics. It is a lay status granted to virtually every Mormon male at age 12, allowing them to bestow blessings and hold certain church callings.
Until 1978, black men could attend priesthood meetings but could not pass sacraments or give blessings, even on their own families. They could not enter Mormon temples for sacred ceremonies, including marriage.
“It left you on the outside,” said Darius A. Gray, who is black and joined the church as a young man in 1964.
Gray said he learned about the restriction the day before his baptism. He was raised to value his race, and the policy went against that. But prayer and study had left him with a belief in the church that he couldn’t ignore.
“So you go forward and walk through the darkness in faith,” he said. “I never knew if the restriction was of God, or if it was of man, if it was just or unjust.”
Early teachings and sermons by church founder Joseph Smith don’t reflect a racist stance. Blacks were not denied membership, baptism or the priesthood under his leadership. Smith ordained the former slave Elijah Able to the priesthood in 1836 and sent him on a proselytizing mission.(p2)