In the current cover story of LDS Living Magazine, Keith Hamilton tells about his journey as a Black Latter-day Saint—which has been remarkable. The article is based on Keith’s new book, Eleventh Hour Laborer. I enjoyed his book (in fact, I did a blurb for his back cover), though I differ strongly with him on one point. Because we disagree on a key issue, and because he has used some of my writing to support his ideas, I want to be open about where I stand.
Keith claims to have received revelation that the priesthood restriction was ordained of God. In his book, Keith says, “I…know unequivocally that the priesthood and temple restrictions formerly faced by blacks in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were the Lord’s doing. How do I know it? By personal revelation…”
Hamilton agrees with Ron Esplin’s idea that the restriction originated with Joseph Smith in Nauvoo and was consistently applied after 1843 and until 1978. I have spoken at length to Brother Esplin and know his theory. I respectfully take exception to it. In fact, as more research has been done, we’ve learned of several other blacks who were ordained to the priesthood during or after 1843, the most significant being Walker Lewis (ordained in 1843). In March 1847, Brigham Young referenced a possible priesthood restriction and apparently dismissed it with these words: “[I]ts nothing to do with the blood, for of one blood has God made all flesh…, we av [sic] one of the best Elders[,] an African[,] in Lowell, [Massachusetts]. Walker Lewis was that ordained elder. In the same year, William Appleby described Lewis as “an example for his more whiter brethren to follow.” (See Connell O’Donovan’s article on Lewis at http://people.ucsc.edu/~odonovan/elder_walker_lewis.html.) As we know, Brigham Young modified that position once the Saints—including some with slaves—were in Utah. (There is more information on Walker Lewis and other early black priesthood holders in the Special Features portion of the DVD I did with Darius Gray, Nobody Knows: The Untold Story of Black Mormons. The documentary will have its national debut on Tuesday, July 26th on the Documentary Channel.)
Brother Esplin’s article suggesting that the restriction originated with Joseph Smith is titled “Brigham Young and Priesthood Denial to Blacks: An Alternative View.” It is an alternative view to the more accepted idea that the restriction came during a time when folklore (the curse of Cain/Canaan) supporting slavery was prominent, and that the common 19th Century view of blacks as “cursed” was imported into the Church by converts who believed it, and that this view of blacks affected LDS policies after Joseph Smith’s time. (Joseph himself was quite radical in his evolving thoughts about blacks, supported abolition, and freely contradicted some common racist ideas of the time.)
Hamilton quotes a poem I wrote for my play I am Jane (about black pioneer Jane Manning James) at the end of his article:
Not a curse but a gift t’us,
The best path we could seek
A place where God can lift us
We kneel; our knees is weak
And when one of us is kneelin’,
We understand his fears.
We know what all us is feelin’
We cry each other’s tears.
That’s just what Jesus done
For all us human folk.
He agreed to come get born
To feel ever’ pain and poke.
So’s he could understand us,
What it is to be a slave.
So’s he could get beneath us
And push us outa the grave
Would you rather be the massa
Or the Roman with his whip?
Would you rather nail the Savior–
Put vinegar to his lip?
Or learn the lessons of sufferin’–
How we nothin’ without grace.
Jesus, He give us a callin’
He gifted us our race.
Significantly, the man who speaks those lines in my play is Elijah Abel, who was ordained to the Melchizedek priesthood by Joseph Smith, Jr. and was washed and anointed in the Kirtland Temple. He was not endowed in the Nauvoo Temple; when it was dedicated, Abel had already moved to Cincinnati. By the time Abel arrived in Salt Lake City around 1852, the priesthood restriction was in place, and his petitions for temple ordinances were denied—though he was told that he still held the priesthood.
When I wrote the play and the poem, I was influenced by Darius Gray, who had shared with me his own personal revelation—which differs in two significant ways from Keith’s. Darius titled what he had received “Not a Curse but a Calling,” and stated unflinchingly that he knew by personal revelation that the restriction was NOT IMPOSED by God but ALLOWED by Him, and when it became too much of a burden, it was undone by revelation given to President Spencer W. Kimball—the only person entitled to receive revelation for the entire church. That is the first difference–that Darius does not believe God authored the restriction. The second is that with his intense awareness of Church order and who has or does not have the right to speak for the Church, Darius wrote down the revelation he had received and submitted it to President Hinckley, asking for permission to teach it. (That will be covered in an upcoming post.)
I intended my poem to be time-specific, relating to the challenges Jane Manning James (1822-1908) was enduring and the folklore she heard about race. (As she petitioned for temple blessings, she was repeatedly denied. Wilford Woodruff wrote in his journal that this was simply because she was “of Cain.”) I did not intend my words to be a justification for the priesthood restriction. I hope that we rejoice in the doctrine that all are alike unto God, and he denieth NONE that come unto him (2 Nephi 26:33).