In 1973, Dialogue published an article by Lester Bush which traced the history of the LDS church policy banning members of African descent from holding the priesthood. That article itself became an important part of that history, as guest blogger Gregory Prince recounts below. If you’ve never read the article, it would be a great way to commemorate this important day in church history.
Update: In this post, I mentioned that a grandson of President Kimball was said to have seen a copy of the Bush article heavily marked up, apparently by the president. Since then I have tried but been unable to confirm that statement. Ed Kimball, who was close to the situation, indicates to me that he doubts the accuracy of the report. –GP
Thoughts on the 32nd Anniversary
My first contact with Lester Bush was indirect. I was in graduate school at UCLA in 1972 and was dating the Dialogue secretary, whose office was across the street from the campus. I noticed a 2-inch-thick book above her desk with the title Compilation on Blacks. Having completed a mission to Brazil three years earlier, I was well aware of the effects of the policy prohibiting ordination of blacks, but I was fuzzy on the cause. Not having the time during graduate school to wade through the 500-plus pages of Lester’s compilation, I sent a letter to his APO address—he was on an overseas assignment for the federal government—and asked if he had any additional copies of the book. He wrote back and said that he had printed and bound only a very small number, and that he had none left. I assumed that would be my last contact with him. His landmark article, “Mormonism’s Negro Doctrine: An Historical Overview” (Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Vol. 8 (1), 1973), was published a short time later.
In 1975 my wife (not the Dialogue secretary) and I moved to Maryland. I was astounded to learn that a year prior to our move, Lester and his family had completed his overseas assignment and had moved into the same ward where we bought a house. We quickly became, and remained, the closest of friends. Nearly every Sunday evening my wife and I would have dinner at the Bush home, and while JaLynn and Yvonne visited in one room, Lester and I would spend hours discussing things Mormon, as Lester was then the associate editor of Dialogue.
During the afternoon of June 8, 1978, JaLynn called me from Frederick, Maryland, where she was a radio announcer. She was incredulous as she read me a story that had just come over the wire, that the LDS Church had announced an end to the ban on ordination of blacks. Shortly after we got home, we drove to the Bush’s home and spent the entire evening rejoicing with them. Phone calls came to him from all parts of the country, congratulating him on the presumed role that his monumental 1973 article in Dialogue had had.
Indeed, his article had played a pivotal role in the process by which Spencer W. Kimball ultimately received the revelation that one of his predecessors, David O. McKay, had sought, without success, for many years. Only last year we learned from a grandson that President Kimball had underlined and annotated virtually the entire article in his own copy of Dialogue.
While we rejoiced in Lester’s contribution, others did not. Indeed, as he recounted in the Journal of Mormon History (“Writing ‘Mormonism’s Negro Doctrine: An Historical Overview’ (1973): Context and Reflections,” Vol. 25, (1), 1999), Boyd K. Packer tried to talk Lester out of publishing it, while surrogates simultaneously lobbied unsuccessfully with the Dialogue editors. Following the publication of the article, Lester was gradually marginalized by local church leaders. At one point I spoke with our stake president about it, and I came away with the impression that the shunning, which was subtle but destructive, came from a higher authority. Ultimately Lester and his family withdrew quietly but completely from church activity, the tragic side of “the long-promised day.”