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Mormon Church Celebration Of 40 Years Of Black Priesthood Brings Up Painful Past


Next month marks an important anniversary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and it's one that comes with some controversy. Forty years ago, the Mormon Church allowed black men to be ordained to the priesthood. Lee Hale of member station KUER reports that it's a moment the church would like to celebrate but one that also brings up a painful past.

LEE HALE, BYLINE: To set the scene for the anniversary, we need to do a quick history lesson.

LASHAWN WILLIAMS: So the Mormon Church is a religion founded in the United States at the height of chattel slavery, 1830.

HALE: LaShawn Williams is a professor at Utah Valley University. She says that the Mormon or LDS Church originally ruffled feathers with its acceptance of black members. Although slavery was in full swing, Mormon congregations were never segregated.

WILLIAMS: Mormonism was bold and new and had potential to really bring everybody in under the tent. And then it got scared.

HALE: As the LDS Church grew and moved from the eastern U.S. to its home in Utah, it changed its policies towards black members. Williams, who's both black and Mormon herself, sees it as an attempt to fit in with mainstream Christianity at the time.

WILLIAMS: There was a pronouncement that black people could not enjoy full benefits of membership in the LDS church.

HALE: They could be baptized. But black men were not allowed into the priesthood, meaning no church leadership, no missions, no access to Mormon temples. This ban lasted more than a century until June of 1978, when Mormon leaders received what they called a revelation. It was headline news on one of Utah's oldest stations, KSL.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: All worthy black members of the LDS church will now have the opportunity to receive the priesthood.

HALE: Now the LDS Church denounces any racist ideology and teaches that all are equal in the sight of God. But some Mormons say the church hasn't gone far enough, that it still needs to apologize to black Mormons, which brings us to a controversy currently playing out.


ZANDRA VRANES: Good morning, saints. I wish I could say that it was a good morning, but it's not.

HALE: Zandra Vranes, a well-known black Mormon writer, took to Facebook recently to talk about a letter, a letter purported to be from LDS church president Russell M. Nelson which offered a blunt and lengthy apology for, quote, "the error of racism taught from pulpits of the church the world over."


VRANES: When I read it, I cried - real cry, real tears.

HALE: But the letter turned out to be a sophisticated fake that Vranes said did nothing more than reopen old wounds. She wished it had been real and made a plea to her church president.


VRANES: President Nelson, people are suffering. People's spirituality, people's relationship with God are suffering.

HALE: Which brings us to this present moment. Tomorrow night, the LDS Church will hold an event called Be One commemorating 40 years since black men were welcomed into the priesthood.

AHMAD CORBITT: Basically, the whole family of Latter-day Saints throughout the world coming together to celebrate this important revelation.

HALE: Ahmad Corbitt helped organize the event, which will feature both the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and prominent Mormon Gladys Knight - yes, that Gladys Knight.


GLADYS KNIGHT: (Singing) I want you to lead me.

SAINTS UNIFIED VOICES: (Singing) Lead me, guide me.

KNIGHT: (Singing) Guide me.

SAINTS UNIFIED VOICES: (Singing) Walk beside me.

KNIGHT: (Singing) Help me find a way.

CORBITT: I think it will heal a lot of people, especially if you come wanting to be healed.

HALE: For Corbitt, wanting to be healed means looking forward rather than dwelling on the church's painful past.

CORBITT: It's like driving looking backwards. Yes, you occasionally check your rearview mirror, but you don't look backwards as you're driving. You look forward.

HALE: But some Mormons wonder if you can truly move forward without apologizing first. For NPR News, I'm Lee Hale in Salt Lake City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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