The need to build consensus among the brethren is often cited as an important reason behind the belated reception of the 1978 revelation extending the blessings of priesthood and the temple to all worthy Church members. Indeed, rule by consensus has become a hallmark of the legacy of President Spencer W. Kimball.
One thing the recent biographies on Presidents Kimball and McKay have revealed is that while the brethren typically (but not always) present a unified front publicly, behind the scenes they are powerful, strong-willed men with strong opinions that do not always align. Given the diversity of belief among the brethren during the decades leading up to the revelation — President Brown thought the priesthood policy could be changed without a revelation, but might well have been alone in this belief; others were famously convinced that the policy was rooted in good and clear doctrine, and some questioned whether a revelation overturning it was even theoretically possible — President Kimball had an uphill task (a task that did not begin with his ascension to the Presidency) if he wanted to build the kind of unified consensus that would prepare the ground for such an earth-shattering revelation. Among others, Presidents Smith (JFSII) and Lee had both rejected Brown’s position outright (his removal from the First Presidency was almost surely, at least in part, a result of differences regarding the question of blacks and the priesthood). Even after the deaths of Smith and Lee, several influential and outspoken Quorum members retained strong opinions about the possibility (or lack thereof) for ever conferring the priesthood upon and extending temple blessings to Mormons of African descent.
Ask even a fairly amateur Mormon historian (like myself), and you’ll likely hear that the two most prominent holdouts on this question even in the years immediately leading up to the revelation were Delbert L. Stapley and Mark E. Petersen. You might also hear Ezra Taft Benson, though it could well be argued that Benson’s lack of sympathy for the “Negro cause” was rooted more in anti-Communism than it was in anything like old-fashioned white-supremacism. In the cases of Stapley and Petersen, it would be difficult to examine the historical record and not see a prominent streak of overtly racist beliefs and sociopolitical positions. Uphill battle indeed…
Here’s where the story gets interesting. I was shocked when a bcc commenter (I forget who — take credit if you remember making the comment) suggested that, in the end, consensus was not a precondition to the reception of the revelation. I double checked the relevant sources and learned that the commenter was indeed correct. Sometimes, it seems, the Lord’s due time includes waiting out the deaths of those individuals whose conviction presents something of a stumbling block on a particular issue, while they continue to be valued servants on a number of other important questions. God is nothing if not patient and long-suffering, and His ways are mysterious. Yet, on the question of the long-awaited priesthood revelation, urgency appears to have trumped patience. You see, neither Elder Petersen nor Elder Stapley ended their respective mortal sojourns before the revelation came. Which is not necessarily to say that they were persuaded to change their positions beforehand either.
Neither was present for the revelation.
Elder Petersen was on assignment in, wait for it, South America. Elder Stapley was in the hospital, fairly close to his death bed. Both were informed after the fact by President Kimball that the revelation had come and would be published. Both agreed to stand by the rest of the Quorum in presenting the revelation to the Church and upholding it.
I’m not sure I know how to think about what this means. Maybe it doesn’t mean anything. Maybe I’m just reeling because I had long nurtured incorrect assumptions about the circumstances leading up to and encompassing the revelation and had my bubble burst. What do you think?