White and black

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More features from this issue:

When the Latter-day Saints come marching in
With a new church on Airport Road and their numbers growing nationwide, local Mormons are unwavering in their faith

A lot on his plates
How Joseph Smith founded the Mormon Church

All in the family
The old practice of polygamy still dogs the Mormons

In 1969, Gretchen Patterson was a senior in college when she converted. “When I was investigating the church I almost didn’t join because of the issue of black people,” she says. Her best friend since kindergarten was African American. “I just thought, ‘How could a church that professes such love say that black people couldn’t hold the priesthood?’” Under church teaching, African Americans could be baptized into the church but, unlike white males—who automatically join the priesthood when they turn 12—they could not enter the priesthood or the temple.

This teaching apparently sprang from a verse in the Book of Mormon, in the second book of Nephi, chapter 5, which details the plight of those that turned away from God’s teachings, and as a result were cut off from his presence. “[W]herefore as they were white, and exceedingly fair and delightsome, that they might not be enticing unto my people the Lord God did cause a skin of blackness to come upon them.”

The priesthood ban became something of a sore spot during the civil rights era and, like polygamy, threatened if not its survival, then the church’s proliferation, so that in 1978, LDS President Spencer W. Kimball beseeched the Lord. Soon, word came back that the Heavenly Father had extended the priesthood and temple blessings to all worthy male members of the Church. Patterson remembers it well, as she and her husband we’re driving home from work when the announcement came over the radio. “We almost had a car accident,” she says, describing her reaction as an emotional release. “The tears just came and I just knew that it was right and it was wonderful, and there were people in Africa that had been praying so hard for this, they wanted to be members of the church.” Indeed, according to a recent Washington Post piece, the Mormon Church says it now has more than 250,000 members in Africa, including almost 80,000 in Nigeria.

Still, as the priesthood repeal is less than 30 years old, the stigma can be hard to shake. “That we’re somehow underlyingly racist is a misconception at times,” says First Ward Bishop Victor Morris. “We believe that the gospel at times has been limited to certain groups, with really no explanation as to why, but it’s eventually been opened up.”

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