Why did it take until 1978 for the Mormon Church to give Blacks the Priesthood?
A personal answer from Gale.
First, it is important to understand how major decisions are made in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Mormon or LDS Church. Previous practices or doctrines cannot be changed by any member or members without a direct revelation from God. The priesthood is not a right, nor is it something that lends prestige or social status to the person who has it. The priesthood is the power to act in God’s name, to perform ordinances, healings, revelatory blessings, etc., in such a way that these things will be bound in heaven as they are bound on earth. The priesthood was restored to the earth (encompassing both the Aaronic and Melchizedek priesthoods) under the hands of heavenly messengers to the early leaders of the Church and passed down to worthy men ever since. The Church has a lay clergy, so all members take part in serving in the Church. Priesthood plays a part not only in running the Church on every level, but in imparting the spiritual, charismatic gifts that follow faith. Therefore, priesthood power has an important place in family life, too.
Historically, the following can be said about race relations in the Mormon Church  (remember that the Church was founded in the early 1800’s.):
- Church doctrine never held that blacks were less than human or without souls, as some denominations did.
- Joseph Smith taught that any mental or economic weakness suffered by blacks was not due to any in-born defect, but simply due to not having ample opportunity to advance and receive the same education as whites.
- Church members were overwhelmingly abolitionist and were even persecuted and driven out because of their anti-slavery leanings.
- The Church never had segregated congregations; all members worshipped together from the beginning.
- The Church supported equal civil rights for many years before the 1978 revelation: to the Church, the issue of priesthood was not one of civil rights or granting status, but of revelation.
- Sociologic studies demonstrated that pre-1978 Mormons were no more or less racist than their contemporaries.
Looking back into the 1800’s Church, no record can be found as to why men of African Black descent were denied the priesthood. Members who were troubled over the matter tried to determine a reason, and some of the folklore that developed simply drew on old, white racist notions or Protestant tradition, such as “the mark of Cain,” or other surmised ideas. The truth is that the Lord never revealed the reason, so the ban has never been explained. Said current apostle Jeffrey R. Holland:
“It probably would have been advantageous to say nothing, to say we just don’t know, and, [as] with many religious matters, whatever was being done was done on the basis of faith at that time. But some explanations were given and had been given for a lot of years. … At the very least, there should be no effort to perpetuate those efforts to explain why that doctrine existed. I think, to the extent that I know anything about it, as one of the newer and younger [apostles] to come along, … we simply do not know why that practice, that policy, that doctrine was in place” (Jeffrey R. Holland, Interview, 4 March 2006).
In 1978, after a long period of supplication and prayer by then President and Prophet Spencer W. Kimball and the apostles, the revelation was finally received that the priesthood should be awarded to every worthy male regardless of race. Yes, the Church had been under a lot of social pressure and criticism during the years leading up to the revelation, but this may have actually slowed the process, not sped it up. The Lord prefers that the Church not appear to be bowing under social pressure.
Apostle Bruce R. McConkie was present in the Salt Lake Temple when the powerful revelation was received. He had this to say:
“It is time disbelieving people repented and got in line and believed in a living, modern prophet. Forget everything that I have said, or what President Brigham Young…or whomsoever has said in days past that is contrary to the present revelation. We spoke with a limited understanding and without the light and knowledge that now has come into the world. We get our truth and our light line upon line and precept upon precept. We have now had added a new flood of intelligence and light on this particular subject, and it erases all the darkness and all the views and all the thoughts of the past. They don’t matter any more. It doesn’t make a particle of difference what anybody ever said about the Negro matter before the first day of June of this year. It is a new day and a new arrangement, and the Lord has now given the revelation that sheds light out into the world on this subject” (Stephen R. Haynes, Noah’s Curse: The Biblical Justification of American Slavery (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002).
To read more, go to BlackLDS.org.