A Significant Factor–the Influence of Lester E. Bush, Jr.’s Research on the Revelation of 1978

The secretary said, “Darius! I hear Negros are going to be given the priesthood.”… I didn’t even look up—I was offended by it, because it was a sensitive subject. And then I told the woman, “Dixie, that’s not funny. Get out.” And she repeated it, and this time I swore at her and I told her it was not funny, get… out of my office. And the woman persisted. She had been on the phone with the Church Office Building—they were our largest customer—and the rumor was going about that the priesthood was about to be extended. So I listened to this woman tell me that, and it was so contrary to everything I ever thought would happen—I thought I would have to wait until the Second Coming before the priesthood would be available. But, I turned on the television and the radio in my office and there were no new bulletins, and so I did the only logical thing—I picked up the phone and called President Kimball. And so, I received confirmation that the priesthood was now to be available to all worthy males. I remember the day well.[1]

These words describe how Darius Gray—a prominent African-American Mormon—heard about one of the most important moments in Mormon history—the “long-awaited day” of the June 1978 revelation that extended priesthood ordination to men of black African descent within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The story behind this revelation has been rehearsed many times and in many ways. One aspect of the history that paved the way for the revelation that is not discussed as often, however, is the influence of scholarship on the history of the priesthood ban.

Darius Gray. Image courtesy http://www.ldsgenesisgroup.org/

Darius Gray.
Image courtesy http://www.ldsgenesisgroup.org

Particularly important among the scholarly articles on the subject of race and the priesthood in Mormonism was the 1973 article entitled “Mormonism’s Negro Doctrine: An Historical Interview,” written by Lester E. Bush, Jr. In the article, Bush offers the conclusion that the ban that denied black men the opportunity to hold the priesthood was initiated by Brigham Young in the late 1840s—rather than by Joseph Smith, Jr. in the 1830s or early 1840s—and that it later became solidified as President Young’s successors followed his directive.[2] Interestingly, Dr. Gregory A. Prince—author of a few influential works on Mormon history and a board member for Dialogue—stated at the 2013 Leonard J. Arrington Lecture in Logan, Utah that, “it gradually became clear that Bush’s scholarship had been a significant factor in Spencer Kimball’s quest to change the policy.”[3] An important question arises from this statement: How did Lester Bush’s writing affect President Kimball and other general authorities in their preparation to lift the priesthood ban?

Prior to the time that Dr. Bush began publishing his work, there were two main theories for the origin of the Priesthood ban. First, there was the approach that justified Church policy (and served as the official Church stance), which explained that blacks were denied the priesthood because Joseph Smith had received a revelation on the subject and that the same restriction was present anciently. The second was the so-called “Missouri Thesis,” which was often used by those who were critical of the Church or at least the ban, and which explained that Joseph Smith instituted the policy in the 1830s as an outgrowth of persecution in Missouri and it was perpetuated by his (sometimes racist) successors.[4] Both assumed that Joseph Smith initiated the policy during the 1830s and were used to either support or attack the policy throughout the 1960s in particular. The most extensive and thorough study prior to Bush’s work came in 1969 in the form of an essay by Stephen Taggart which supported the Missouri Thesis.

Joseph Smith, Jr.

Joseph Smith, Jr.

By the time that Taggart’s work began to circulate, Lester E. Bush, Jr. had taken an interest in the history of the priesthood ban for a few years and felt that an adequate explanation for the origins of the policy had not been offered. He began compiling literally thousands of sources, such as the principle published journals of the Church, the Journal History and Manuscript History of the Church, and documents in collections at the University of Utah, BYU, the Utah Historical Society, and the Library of Congress. He reported that, “I had so many entries that it was easy for me to [look at an evolution in beliefs]…. I was looking at an almost week-by-week record.”[5] After reading Taggart’s work, Bush felt that “Taggart’s underlying research was superficial and added little to the works of historians Fawn Brodie and Warren Jennings. I also found little support for his conclusions.”[6] Surprised to find that the Taggart essay was winning awards and would be published in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Lester wrote a detailed response based on what he had researched and sent it to Eugene England—the editor of Dialogue at the time. England wrote back and requested that Bush recast his response as a review essay, which was done and the results were published along with the Taggart essay in the Winter of 1969 Dialogue issue.[7]

Although Dr. Bush felt that had undermined not only Taggart’s work but all previous historical/environmental explanations embodied in the “Missouri thesis” argument, he felt that he was only beginning to understand the history of the priesthood ban. He continued to unearth more sources of information and typed up a comprehensive chronological full-text compilation of everything he had, totaling over four hundred pages. By the time he had completed this compilation, he felt confident that he understood and could write the basic history of the blacks and the priesthood and began work on his most important article—“Mormonism’s Negro Doctrine: An Historical Overview.” His main conclusion—as Leonard J. Arrington recorded after discussing it with Bush—was that:

He says it is very clear to him as a result of his research that the Negro doctrine was not established by Joseph Smith but by Brigham Young and that a study of our history will demonstrate that it is the product of a series of circumstances rather than the clear voice of the Lord to one of his prophets.[8]

The article was finished by mid-1973 and was published in Dialogue during August of that year despite some stiff opposition from high-ranking Church leaders.

The Spring 1973 issue of Dialogue, where Bush's article was published.

The Spring 1973 issue of Dialogue, where Bush’s article was published.

As can be expected with any controversial historical subject, the article had mixed reviews among the general authorities of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints when it first was published. On the negative side, Elder Boyd K. Packer expended considerable effort to convince Bush to not publish the article in the first place, telling him that “that there is absolutely no doubt among the brethren on the Negro doctrine of the Church and that any research and writing on this subject is superfluous, wasteful and potentially harmful.”[9] Elder Bruce R. McConkie studied the article intently, then slammed the issue of Dialogue down on his desk and pronounced it “CRAP!” Elder Mark E. Peterson was dismayed enough that he called Bush’s stake president ten years after the article was published, speaking “very harshly” about the publication on the “Negro Doctrine” and, in the words of Lester E. Bush, Jr. himself, “instructed Marriott [the stake president] to call me in and take some appropriate action.”[10] Although that stake president found no fault in Bush, pressure would eventually be brought to bear. As Bush’s friend Gregory A. Prince observed:

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.”[11]

On a more positive note, however, there were general authorities who received the article well. Six months after the publication of the article, Lester Bush asked Hartman Rector—a member of the First Council of the Seventy at the time—about some negative reactions to the article in the Church hierarchy that a BYU professor had reported. According to Bush’s account, Elder Rector replied that:

There had been no “ground swells” about the article after I passed through, that Packer had delivered the official statement to me (that they would have [preferred] it not exist, but since it did, and since it was committed to publication, that was the end of it), that I personally was not under any condemnation (he even gave me a mild compliment on the article—nothing effusive, and said he believed many of the [General Authorities] had read it by now).… The mild compliment was his new opinion, inferred from my article, that had Joseph Smith lived longer, blacks would not have been denied the priesthood.

Further, Bush was also informed years later that Elder Marion D. Hanks had favorable views on the article and even admitted on multiple occasions that, “[the] article had had far more influence than the Brethren would ever acknowledge. . . . It ‘started to foment the pot.’”[12]

Elder Marion D. Hanks of the Presidency of the Seventy. Image courtesy wikipedia.

Elder Marion D. Hanks of the Presidency of the Seventy.
Image courtesy wikipedia.

Even with this evidence that the article was known by the general authorities, the exact influence this article may have had on the 1978 revelation remains unclear. Spencer W. Kimball’s son and biographer Edward L. Kimball noted that in the years leading up to the Priesthood Revelation his father struggled with the question and even asked the members of the Quorum of the Twelve and the First Presidency to “join him… in extended study and supplication,”[13] indicating that they were looking into the issue. Leonard J. Arrington—who served as the LDS Church Historian until 1982—wrote that he felt that “research by… [scholars] had prompted some Latter-day Saints to feel that the church was indeed spiritually prepared for a change,” indicating that—although he didn’t mention Lester Bush specifically—historical research had created openness for a shift in policy.[14] Edward Kimball offered a similar opinion, stating that:

The possibility for changing the policy increased subtly as scholarly efforts to trace the restriction to its source showed no certain beginnings and shaky reasoning in support of the practice…. Study by General Authorities and independent scholars had weakened the traditional idea that Joseph Smith taught priesthood exclusion and cast a shadow on the policy’s purported scriptural justifications.[15]

Certainly, Bush’s article stands among the corpus of influential scholarship that they would have considered. As mentioned by Elder Rector and Elder Hanks above, many of the General Authorities had read the article shortly after it was published and it did initiate some discussion among them. Albert Payne, who worked in the Church curriculum department at the time of the Revelation, told Eugene England that he “was convinced that this [article by Lester Bush] had a profound effect on their willingness to accept a change.”[16] During the discussions that occurred in the days leading up to the revelation, Elder Mark E. Petersen “called President Kimball’s attention to an article that proposed the priesthood policy had begun with Brigham young, not Joseph Smith, and he suggested that the President might wish to consider this factor,” almost certainly a reference to Bush’s 1973 article.[17]

The closest we get to a direct link of Bush’s article affecting President Kimball’s thoughts is a statement made by Dr. Gregory A. Prince: “We learned from a grandson that President Kimball had underlined and annotated virtually the entire article in his own copy of Dialogue.”[18] Dr. Prince had heard this at a dinner conversation from a friend who had hosted Spencer W. Kimball’s grandson and reported that this grandson spoke “of having the copy—his father had owned his grandfather’s copy—and he said that it was almost completely underlined and annotated.”  At a Mormon Stories Conference held in 2011, Dr. Prince stated that, “We knew that it [the article] had had an effect that went beyond what the initial indications were—and we got that over the years from several General Authorities—but that was really… the cap on the whole thing.”[19] More recently, however, Dr. Prince wrote that, “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.”[20] For the time being, Spencer W. Kimball’s opinion about Lester Bush’s work remains unclear.

President Spencer W. Kimball

President Spencer W. Kimball

It seems, however, that the article did have an impact on the decisions and thoughts of the General Authorities during the years leading up to the 1978 revelation that lifted the ban against ordaining men of African descent to the priesthood. The main question that remains is how much of an influence Lester Bush did have in preparing the way for the revelation. It is likely that this question will remain unanswered in its entirety during the foreseeable future.

[1] Darius Gray, Margret Young, and John Dehlin. “Blacks and the LDS Priesthood—An Interview with Darius Gray and Margaret Young.” Mormon Stories Podcast #26.

[2] See Lester E. Bush, Jr. “Mormonism’s Negro Doctrine: An Historical Interview.” Dialogue 8 (Spring 1973). Also in, Neither White Nor Black, Lester E. Bush Jr. and Armand L. Mauss, eds., pp. 53-97.

[3] Prince, Gregory A. “Doubt and Faith as Partners in Mormon History” (2013). Arrington Annual Lecture. Paper 19.

[4] See Lester E. Bush, Jr. “Writing ‘Mormonism’s Negro Doctrine: An Historical Overview’ [1973]: Context and Reflections, 1998.” Journal of Mormon History Vol. 25, No. 1 (1999): 229.

[5] Young and Lester E. Bush, Jr. “Mixed Messages on the Negro Doctrine.” Sunstone May-June 1979,  9.

[6] Bush, “Writing ‘Mormonsim’s Negro Doctrine’”, 237.

[7] See Ibid, 238-242.

[8] Leonard J. Arrington Journal, cited in Gregory A. Prince, “Doubt and Faith as Partners in Mormon History” (2013). Arrington Annual Lecture. Paper 19.

[9] Leonard J. Arrington Journal, cited in Prince, Gregory A. “Doubt and Faith as Partners in Mormon History” (2013). Arrington Annual Lecture. Paper 19.

[10] Lester E. Bush, Jr. “Writing ‘Mormonism’s Negro Doctrine: An Historical Overview’ [1973]: Context and Reflections, 1998.” Journal of Mormon History Vol. 25, No. 1 (1999): 266-267.

[11] Gregory A. Prince. “The Long Awaited Day,” 8 June, 2010. By Common Consent. Accessed 24 Sept 2013.

[12] Bush, “Writing Mormonism’s Negro Doctrine,” 265-266

[13] Edward L. Kimball “Spencer W. Kimball and the Revelation on Priesthood.” BYU Studies 47, no. 2 (2008): 47.

[14] Leonard J. Arrington Adventures of a Church Historian. (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois, 1998), 183.

[15] Kimball, “Spencer W. Kimball and the Revelation.” 27, 44.

[16] Devery S.  Anderson, “A History of Dialogue, Part Two: Struggle Toward Maturity, 1971-1982.” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought Vol 33 No 02, 64.

[17] Kimball 54

[18] Greg Prince. “The Long Awaited Day,” 8 June, 2010. By Common Consent. Accessed 24 Sept 2013.

[19] Gregory A. Prince and John Dehlin. “Greg Prince on ‘Big Tent Mormonism.’” Mormon Stories Podcast, 20 October 2011. Accessed 22 October 2013.

[20] Gregory A. Prince. “The Long Awaited Day,” 8 June, 2010. By Common Consent. Accessed 24 Sept 2013.

One comment

  1. A second part of this idea is found in an essay (albeit an imperfect one) I wrote that is published at http://digitalcommons.usu.edu/arrington_stwriting/12/

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