“Witnessing the Faithfulness,” Revelations in Context (2016)
“Witnessing the Faithfulness,” Revelations in Context
The Bible tells the story of a people who knew trouble and grief. In the Old Testament, the children of Israel were dragged away from their homes as captives and enslaved in distant lands. Later, the Israelites’ homeland was occupied by foreign powers that ruled with a heavy hand. The people waited for salvation in part because they knew what it is to endure bondage.1
The experience of countless black Africans over the past five centuries has echoed the experience of the ancient Israelites. From the early 1500s to 1888, generations of black Africans were taken from their homelands and enslaved in the Americas. By the early 1900s, almost all of Africa was occupied by foreign powers.
On both sides of the Atlantic, slavery and imperialism led to deep divisions between white and black populations. Laws typically treated white people as superior. After The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was organized in 1830, some black people embraced the restored gospel and a few black men were ordained to the priesthood. However, the racially divided culture of the time and threats of outside persecution posed challenges to racial integration in the Church.2
Starting in the 1850s, the Church followed a policy that restricted black members’ access to full participation in the Church by declaring them ineligible to be ordained to the priesthood or receive temple ordinances.3 For several generations, many black Latter-day Saints, like many black people around the world, made the most of difficult circumstances while hoping for a better future.
As the Church began to expand globally in the decades after World War II, a growing number of black people converted to the restored gospel. In Africa and in the Americas, a new generation of black pioneers placed their trust in the Lord to open up a way for them to one day participate fully in the Church. Although there were encouraging signs of a change in racial attitudes both inside and outside of the Church, racial discrimination continued to be widespread, and the priesthood and temple restriction on black Saints remained.4 The experiences of three couples—Charlotte Andoh-Kesson and William Acquah in Ghana, Helvécio and Rudá Tourinho Assis Martins in Brazil, and Joseph and Toe Leituala Freeman in the United States—shed light on what it was like to be a black Latter-day Saint in the years leading up to the 1978 revelation that made priesthood and temple blessings available to members of the Church regardless of race.
As a child, Charlotte Andoh-Kesson attended an Anglican church with her parents and 12 siblings. A naturally religious person, Charlotte memorized all the hymns and even the words of the mass.
When Charlotte was about 11 years old, her mother met a local pastor named Joseph William “Billy” Johnson. Johnson wasn’t like other pastors—in addition to the Bible, he preached from another book of scripture called the Book of Mormon. Charlotte grew up hearing names such as Moroni, Nephi, and Ammon as well as names such as Moses and Mark. Alongside older hymns, she sang Latter-day Saint hymns about Zion and the Restoration of the gospel. At times, she and others from her church would travel down to the beach to wrestle with the Lord in prayer as Enos had done in the Book of Mormon.5
The congregation Charlotte attended met in a run-down building with a large crack in the roof, but they decorated the building with a statue of the angel Moroni to remind them of faraway temples. Some members of the congregation dreamed and prophesied of a day when they would be dressed in white, standing in a beautiful temple in Ghana.6 Before that day came, though, they knew that representatives from Church headquarters would need to come and officially make them part of the worldwide Church.
In 1978, the year Charlotte finished college, she began to feel pulled between different forces. On the one hand, Brother Johnson became increasingly convinced that the day was coming when the predominately white Church, headquartered in the United States, would recognize the black Latter-day Saint congregations in Ghana, and he led multiday fasts to hasten its coming. At the same time, Charlotte began dating William Acquah. William was happy to embrace her Latter-day Saint relatives and friends but was skeptical of the Church’s teachings, critical of its poor physical facilities, and suspicious of white people in general, including those whom Ghana’s Latter-day Saints were praying would come to their country.
In the early 1970s, Helvécio and Rudá Martins were searching for religious truth in Brazil. At the encouragement of Rudá’s family, the couple had spent several years practicing Macumba, a faith that mixed African traditions, Catholic teachings, and spiritualism. Gradually, however, they began to feel that Macumba was not fulfilling their spiritual needs or bringing them closer to deceased family members and ancestors.7
In 1972, two Latter-day Saint missionaries knocked on their door. Helvécio was interested but had one pressing concern. “Given that your church is headquartered in the United States, a country with a history of racial conflict,” he asked, “how does your religion treat blacks? Are they allowed into the church?”
Helvécio remembered the older missionary “nervously squirm[ing] in his chair” in response.8 Before answering, the missionaries asked to pray with Helvécio, Rudá, and the children. They then shared the story of the Restoration and explained the priesthood and temple restriction to the best of their understanding. Helvécio felt satisfied enough by their answer to focus on their other new teachings. Within a few months, encouraged by “the spirit of the talks … and the love of the members” at church, Helvécio and Rudá were baptized.9 At the time, they were happy to let the gospel improve their lives and to wait—they assumed until the Millennium—for some priesthood-related blessings.
About a year after their baptisms, though, the Martins family was surprised when their patriarchal blessings suggested that they would be sealed together as a family in this life and that their son Marcus would serve a mission. Not wanting to be disappointed, they held to their understanding that they would wait for such blessings until Christ’s return. At the same time, wanting to be prepared for whatever the Lord had planned, they opened a mission savings account for Marcus.10
Over the next few years, as the Martins family grew in the Church, members gave them support—and sometimes uncomfortable expressions of sympathy. On one occasion, a bishop said he felt Helvécio’s greatest challenge was to remain faithful in the Church without being ordained to the priesthood. “Bishop,” Helvécio replied, “I would be grateful if it were my greatest trial.”11
In 1975, Helvécio and Rudá were invited to tour the construction site of the São Paulo Brazil Temple because of Helvécio’s calling as the Church’s regional public relations director. During the tour, both Helvécio and Rudá stopped at what they later learned was the site of the celestial room. “A powerful spirit touched our hearts,” Helvécio recalled. “We hugged each other and cried, not really understanding why.”12
Two years later, at the temple’s cornerstone ceremony, President Spencer W. Kimball called Helvécio to his side. “Brother Martins,” he counseled, “what is necessary for you is fidelity. Remain faithful and you will enjoy all the blessings of the gospel.”13
But how could the Martins family receive all the blessings of the gospel without holding the priesthood or receiving temple ordinances? The next year, Marcus became engaged to a Church member who did not have black African ancestry. While she was content to rely on promises that all blessings would someday be available to all members, the prospect of not having a temple wedding was painful.
Long before he heard about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Joseph Freeman had sworn to give his life to Christ. His family was active in the Holiness movement, and he became a lay minister. In 1972, Joseph also enlisted in the army and was assigned to a base in Hawaii. His days were filled with military service, while his free time was filled with preaching and prayer.
But Joseph felt something was missing. Seeking guidance, he requested a week’s leave, drove to a secluded section of beach, and fasted for five days. “I literally pleaded with the Lord,” Joseph recalled, “that I would know what to do to gain the strength and spiritual power to teach the gospel as it ought to be taught.”14 He also expressed a second wish: to find a wife who would love God as much as she loved him.
Joseph’s prayer was soon answered. While visiting the Polynesian Cultural Center in Laie, he met several Latter-day Saints whose gospel insights impressed him. In particular, a returned sister missionary named Toe Isapela Leituala struck him as the kind of woman he had always been looking for. Through conversations with new friends, missionaries, and Toe, Joseph became convinced he had found Christ’s restored Church. He was baptized on September 30, 1973.
As a new member, Joseph’s feelings about race and the Church were mixed. He was nervous about being the only black member in his ward. In addition, the priesthood and temple restriction stood between him and two of his deepest desires: he couldn’t be a minister in the Church, and he couldn’t have the marriage he wanted. Toe, who wanted a temple marriage, broke off contact with Joseph as she felt her attraction to him growing.
It disturbed Joseph that he couldn’t find scriptural support for common justifications for the restriction, most of which involved speculation about the premortal life. At the same time, he found comfort in the promise that someday, at least in the Millennium, black men would hold the priesthood. “My concept of the Millennium was not of some faraway thing that was beyond comprehension,” Joseph recalled. “I really felt it might not be very many years before ‘that great and dreadful day.’”15
Even with the dilemmas he faced as a black man in the Church, Joseph remained grateful for the gospel. “With each day the gift of the Holy Ghost became a greater source of guidance and peace and a more permanent part of my life,” he remembered.16 Soon after his conversion, it was difficult for him to imagine how he had lived without it.
It also became difficult for Toe to imagine living without him. Though marrying Joseph would keep her from the temple sealing she had long hoped for, she felt prompted to pursue the relationship. The two began dating and soon counseled with their bishop about getting married. The bishop first expressed the typical concerns of the time about interracial and intercultural marriage but promised that if they would fast and pray, the Holy Ghost would tell them what to do. Joseph and Toe fasted, prayed, and felt the Spirit’s confirmation of their choice. Others pressured them to break off their relationship, but they remained true to the answer they had received. They were married on June 15, 1974.
The marriage was soon blessed with a child, and Joseph and Toe decided to leave army life. They moved to Salt Lake City, where they had more children. One factor in their decision to settle in Salt Lake City was the Genesis Group, a Church-sponsored social and spiritual group for black Saints.17 For the most part, he found himself content with his life in the Church. He worried, though, about how to raise his sons with enough self-esteem to weather being singled out in their teens for not being allowed to receive the priesthood along with their peers.
As congregations of believers grew in Ghana and Nigeria and people such as the Martins family and Joseph Freeman joined the Church in the Americas, President Spencer W. Kimball witnessed their faithfulness and became increasingly preoccupied with how to help them grow in the faith. On one occasion, he was moved to tears by a letter from Emmanuel Bondah, a sixth-grader in Ghana, asking for his own copy of the Book of Mormon and for help to become “a pure Mormon.”18
By early 1978, President Kimball was regularly praying in the temple for revelation about extending priesthood ordination and temple blessings to black members of the Church. He spoke at length with his counselors in the First Presidency and with members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles on the subject and invited them to make it a matter of study and prayer.
On June 1, 1978, President Kimball met with the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in the temple. He asked once again for their thoughts and counsel concerning the restriction and then prayed for revelation. “I had had some remarkable spiritual experiences before,” Elder Bruce R. McConkie recalled, “… but nothing of this magnitude. All of the Brethren at once knew and felt in their souls what the answer to the importuning petition of President Kimball was.”19 A week later, the First Presidency sent word to Church leaders throughout the world announcing that the restriction had been lifted. This statement was later canonized in the Doctrine and Covenants as Official Declaration 2.
The day after the announcement, Joseph Freeman received a phone call from his bishop. As it happened, their stake conference was to be held that weekend: Joseph was interviewed, was sustained, and on June 11, 1978, became the first black man ordained to the Melchizedek Priesthood after the revelation. At last, he would be able to minister with the authority he had prayed to find. Two weeks later, Joseph and Toe took their children to the temple. As Joseph and Toe’s family knelt at the altar, Elder Thomas S. Monson spoke the words of the ordinance and then sealed them together for time and all eternity.20
For the Martins family in Brazil, the news led their son Marcus to delay his wedding to serve the mission that his patriarchal blessing had spoken of and that his parents had saved for. Just after being ordained an elder himself, Helvécio stood in the circle to ordain Marcus to the same office. “I felt I would explode with joy,” Helvécio recalled.21 Just a few weeks later, he gave his maid’s son a priesthood blessing and witnessed the boy’s miraculous healing. That November, the São Paulo Brazil Temple opened and the Martins family—including Marcus, who was serving a mission in São Paulo, Brazil—was sealed.22
In Ghana, the revelation on priesthood at last opened the way for missionaries to come and officially organize congregations there. For members such as Charlotte, it was a clear answer to the extended fasts and many prayers of the local Saints. Her husband, William, was less impressed. In his studies, he had absorbed a mistrust of white people and their narratives about history and faith. His personal interactions with white people had only served to increase that distrust, and he was skeptical about the prospect of white missionaries bringing anything good to his country.23
What he actually experienced, though, surprised him. A senior missionary couple, Reed and Naomi Clegg, brought him the gospel through their actions and words. They were warm and straightforward. They not only taught that all people are children of God but also extended respect to everyone they met. “They welcomed me in the way that no white has ever welcomed me,” William recalled.24 Once his guarded attitude about the white messengers evaporated, it wasn’t long before William felt the gospel message sinking deep into his heart. He was baptized, was ordained to the priesthood, and helped build up the Church in Ghana from its small beginnings until the day in 2004 when the visions of the first members were fulfilled and Ghana had a temple of its own.
As Helvécio Martins had expressed to his bishop in the mid-1970s, the priesthood and temple restriction was one of many trials in black members’ lives. In addition to their own personal trials, many have faced and continue to face cultural misunderstandings and prejudice, even in their own wards or branches. And members of all races struggle to understand the restriction.
As a result of the revelation ending the restriction, Church members around the world experience real and meaningful integration with their fellow Saints. Through home and visiting teaching, Church callings, service, and fellowship, members with different racial backgrounds often become deeply involved in each other’s lives. Members learn from each other, take counsel from each other, and have opportunities to better understand each others’ perspectives and experiences.
Latter-day Saints still wrestle with the problems created by centuries of slavery, colonization, suspicion, and division. But Church fellowship offers them the chance to become of one heart and one mind as they minister to each other in love. As they press forward in humility and faith, members of the Church find healing and strength through Jesus Christ, the Savior of us all.