“Is There No Blessing for Me?” Black Women and the Priesthood/Temple Ban

“Is There No Blessing for Me?”

Black Women and the Priesthood/Temple Ban

Chrisse Edmunds

Chrisse Edmunds was a senior majoring in psychology and minoring in women’s studies when this paper was presented.

In 1978, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints released a declaration that lifted the ban on the priesthood, making it available to all worthy males. This revelation was most significant to black males. Thus when most Latter-day Saints hear this story, they link it to lessons given in Church where things like the priesthood and the blessing of modern prophets who have the ability to receive continuing revelation are discussed. Such lessons emphasize how important this declaration was to black men, who could not receive the blessings of the priesthood before this time.

Because women cannot hold the priesthood, they are frequently left out of this tale of patience and revelation. However, we must remember that because black men did not hold the priesthood, they could neither receive the blessings of the temple through receiving personal endowments or familial sealings, nor could they serve missions. Similarly, black women were denied these privileges; thus this ban affected black women immensely. Tragically, we never hear the stories of these women. We never hear of their experiences of begging mission presidents to be allowed to serve full-time missions or writing letters to prophets of the Church, demanding to receive their temple ordinances. Why is it that these remarkable stories are all but forgotten? While its benefit to black men should not be diminished, we often overlook the impact that the lifting of the priesthood ban had on women. It is just as important for Latter-day Saints to study the black female experience with the priesthood ban and its release as it is to study the black male experience.

History of the Pri​​esthood Ban

Two black men, Walker Lewis and Elijah Abel, were ordained to the priesthood during Joseph Smith’s lifetime.[1] This makes it clear that Joseph Smith did not see heritage as a limiting factor in the priesthood. However, after Joseph’s death, Apostles saw the ordination of blacks to the priesthood as improper.[2] Armand Mauss proposes that this mindset originated from the culture of slavery and the racist mindset that permeated the philosophy of that time.[3] While there is no official reason why blacks were denied the priesthood for so long, there were many justifications made.[4]

Many Church members and leaders began looking for answers, and while searching, started misinterpreting the scriptures to see a causal instead of coincidental relationship between heritage and the priesthood.[5] Some believed in the curse of Canaan (curse of Cain), while others believed that those with black skin were not valiant in the premortal existence. Each person believed in a different reason as to why blacks could not have the priesthood.

Although such justifications and theories are false, they were perpetuated for many years without any revelation that identified a specific reason that blacks could not have the priesthood. We do not know why the ban existed, but we do know that as of June 1978, all of the theorized reasons were made invalid, because there were no longer restrictions on race and the priesthood (Official Declaration 2, section heading). Along with this, it is important to always address the perspective of black women at this time, for the narrative of the priesthood ban is enriched by their experiences and brings depth to the typically male-driven point of view. An example of this male point of view is found within a Church manual. In the Doctrine and Covenants institute student manual, the section about Official Declaration 2, entitled “Every Faithful, Worthy Man,” does not once make mention of women and their desires that were denied by the ban.[6] The title of the section alone eliminates the very idea of women being affected by this.

Let us keep in mind that during the ban, black individuals, male or female, could not enter the temple (with the exception of performing baptisms for the dead), were denied eligibility to serve full-time missions, and could not hold leadership positions in the Church.[7] This paper shares the experiences of Jane Manning James, Jerri Harwell, Mary Frances Sturlaugson, and Mary Lucile Bankhead both before and after the ban.

Black Fema​​​le Experiences with the Ban

Jane Manning James is well known for being one of the few black pioneers. Though best known for her barefooted trek from Connecticut to Nauvoo, she was also known as being an advocate for the lifting of the priesthood ban. Her drive to have the ban lifted was defined by her powerful desire to enter the holy temple, receive her endowment, and be sealed to her family. She was concerned about the spiritual state of her family if they could not be sealed to one another. Jane petitioned multiple prophets to grant her this privilege, but each time, she was denied access to the temple because of her race.[8]

Mary Frances Sturlaugson is known for being the first black female missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Growing up, she had disliked the Church because she knew that blacks did not have equal rights to the priesthood. Because of this, her first encounters with the missionaries were highly unsuccessful. It was only because of their incessant desire to help her and persistence in contacting her that she finally decided to listen to them. Not long thereafter, she was baptized; however, her family disowned her and from that point on, she had very little contact with her parents and twenty-four brothers and sisters.[9] Her sacrifice for joining the Church was immense, but she had felt a confirmation that this Church would bring her peace.

Jerri Harwell was baptized in September of 1977, less than one year before the lifting of the priesthood ban.[10] Jerri had known about the priesthood ban before asking the missionaries about it. When she did inquire about it, they assured her that blacks would be able to hold the priesthood one day. Being a female, she didn’t think much more about it until she decided that she wanted to go on a mission.[11]

Mary Lucile Bankhead, the great-granddaughter of Green Flake (another well-known black pioneer), was a faithful member of the Church all of her life and raised her children in the Church as well. Though she was a minority in Utah, she felt accepted by white Latter-day Saints, and when she had a problem with a racial issue, she would confront it tactfully.[12] Even though she knew that blacks could not hold the priesthood, she hoped and prayed that one day they would be able to.[13]

Desire to Receive Temple Blessings

Latter-day Saints believe that exaltation is becoming like God and living with him again with our eternal families. In order to receive this, one must be worthy to enter the temple and receive the endowment ordinance and then be sealed to a partner for time and all eternity. These events are of utmost importance to Latter-day Saints and are frequently talked about in meetings and lessons. The temple is emphasized constantly, and because of that, it must have been difficult for these faithful black members to endure lessons about the blessings they did not have access to. Specifically, black women were concerned that they were not allowed to enter the temple and receive those blessings for themselves or perform the temple work for their ancestors.

As previously mentioned, Jane Manning James pleaded with several prophets to be allowed access to the blessings of the temple. In a letter to John Taylor on December 27, 1884, she reminded President Taylor of her faith and desire to be with the Saints. The most poignant argument that she raises is that of the Abrahamic promise: “I realize my race and color and can’t expect my endowment as others who are white. My race was handed down through the flood, and God promised Abraham that in his seed all the nations of the earth should be blessed. As this is the fullness of all dispensations, is there no blessing for me?”[14] This passionate plea evokes strong empathy toward her as she tells of her desire to enter the temple. With a blessing of eternal families and salvation promised to all descendants of Abraham, how could she not be confused as to why she was not allowed those blessings as well (see Abraham 2:11)? President Taylor returned her letter with a recommend allowing her to enter into the temple to be baptized for her kindred dead.[15]

After Mary Frances Sturlaugson was baptized, she moved to Utah, where she was one of the few black women in Utah County. This was hard for her, as she faced prejudice and discrimination—even from other Church members.[16] It was here that it became apparent to her that she was being denied blessings because of the color of her skin. When she asked a trusted friend why she could not enter the temple, Mary became only more confused. That night she prayed to know why this was and again received a spiritual prompting comforting her and assuring her that she would be able to inherit the kingdom of heaven if she was faithful and kept the commandments.[17] She writes in her account of that night, “Hours later I still lay sobbing. Maybe I couldn’t enter the temple, but there was still the greatest of all temples, that of my heavenly home, and that was the one I was to strive to enter.”[18] This shows not only Mary’s desire to enter into the holy temple, but her understanding that even though she could not enter the temple on earth, she knew that she was part of God’s kingdom.

Desire to Ser​ve Missions

It has been part of the Latter-day Saint culture to usually associate missions with men, as they are required to serve; however, female missionaries have incredible experiences on missions as well. During the time of the priesthood ban, black females could not serve missions, because they could not enter the temple prior to their service and because leaders were doubtful about their prospective investigators. They doubted that they would have anyone to teach, since whites would not listen to them and blacks could only be taught upon their own request.[19] However, black women still had a desire to serve and share their testimonies with others.

When Jerri Harwell approached a member of her bishopric with her desire to serve a mission, she was told that she could be a local or stake missionary but not a full-time missionary, because she was black. She was told that she would not have anyone to teach, because blacks could only be taught the discussions if they requested them.[20] This concept was especially confusing for Jerri because her mother was Native American; she questioned why that part of her could not serve a mission or enter the temple.[21] She was upset and felt a desire to no longer be a part of the Church because of the discrimination she was facing.

Jerri knelt in prayer and poured out her heart to God and decided to lean on the Lord instead of her own understanding. At the close of her prayer, asking again why blacks could not hold the priesthood, she “heard the Lord say, ‘I have never given a reason.’” Jerri took this to mean that all of the research she had been doing on the priesthood ban revealed the logic of men, not the will of God. [22] With this renewed faith she patiently awaited the day that the reason of the Lord would come forth. Just a few months before the revelation, Jerri received her patriarchal blessing, and in it she was told that her sons would receive the priesthood.[23] One can only imagine the joy and surprise that she felt when she found out that her posterity would have full access to priesthood service and blessings.

Over time, Mary Frances Sturlaugson began to feel restless and had a desire to serve a mission. “Father in heaven,” she pleaded, “will you ever have need of me?”[24] She turned this desire into action and took her request to her stake president, who assured her that he would take it up with the leadership in Salt Lake City. When he returned to Mary to tell her that her request was not granted, she sobbed.[25] She continued to fast, pray, bear her testimony, and make formal requests to her stake president. She anxiously awaited an announcement from the prophet.[26] She requested again on May 28, 1978, just eleven days before the ban would be released, and was again denied.

Lifting of​​ the Ban

President Spencer W. Kimball heard the cries of the people and knew the desires of their hearts. However, he did not want to change this policy unless he knew it was truly the will of God. He was frequently asked about this policy in press conferences and other interview settings.[27] Though he always responded to these questions with the same traditional answers, he felt conflicted and thus turned to the Lord to see if it was time that this policy be changed.[28]

President Kimball’s desire to truly know the will of God consumed him. He frequently talked about this topic with the Apostles and spent hours alone in the temple, trying to be sure that lifting the ban was the right thing to do. His neighbors and his wife began to be worried, as it was apparent that he was concerned about something.[29] His wife, Camilla, noted that the rhetoric of his prayers began to change from asking for guidance to requesting revelation. She also saw that he was even more immersed in the scriptures than he had been in the past. But, all the while, she was not aware of what was troubling him.[30] During this time he continued to receive letters requesting a change to be made. There was pressure from both within and without the Church to allow blacks to participate more fully in the priesthood. However, President Kimball did not want this change to be brought about by pressure, but by revelation.[31]

It was on June 1, 1978, that President Kimball announced to the Quorum of the Twelve the revelation he had received allowing them to change this policy. After conversing about it and praying as a group, it was obvious to all of those in attendance that this was the will of God. They were all overwhelmed with emotion and joy, excited for the lives that would be changed by this revelation.[32] The First Presidency drafted Official Declaration 2 in the following week and presented it to the Quorum of the Seventy on June 8, 1978. Its reception was equal to that of the reaction of the members of the Quorum of the Twelve. The declaration was immediately released via radio and newspaper.[33]

In Official Declaration 2, the First Presidency (Spencer W. Kimball, N. Eldon Tanner, and Marion G. Romney) wrote that the Lord “has heard our prayers, and by revelation has confirmed that the long-promised day has come when every faithful, worthy man in the Church may receive the holy priesthood, with power to exercise its divine authority, and enjoy with his loved ones every blessing that flows therefrom, including the blessings of the temple” (Official Declaration 2). What a joyous day it was when this statement was released! President Gordon B. Hinckley, who was in the meeting when President Kimball announced the revelation, said that everyone in the room felt the Spirit testify that this revelation was from God and that it truly was time to ordain blacks to the priesthood.[34] He said that “tremendous, eternal consequences for millions over the earth are flowing from that manifestation,”[35] meaning that this revelation would affect both men and women for all of the following generations. These “eternal consequences” include the blessings that black women receive as they enter the temple.

Jerri Harwell heard about the announcement on June 8, 1978, on national breaking news. At first she thought it was a joke, so she turned to the one person she knew could confirm whether this announcement was true. She knelt in prayer and immediately felt a confirmation that the time had come for blacks to have the priesthood and that she could now serve a full-time mission.[36]

When Mary Lucile Bankhead heard about the revelation, she was elated. She had been vocal about its coming and had waited for it for so long that she did not believe it when she first found out.[37] Mary said that hearing about the revelation was the most incredible experience she had ever known.[38]

Mary Frances Sturlaugson heard the announcement when she ran into an old bishop on June 9, 1978. He told her that her people had “just been given the blessing of the priesthood,” to which she responded, “Please don’t joke with me about something like that.”[39] Through the commotion in the streets, she quickly realized that his message was not a joke, but the truth: “As I walked outside, crying like a happy kid at Christmastime, horns were honking like crazy. . . . When I arrived at my apartment my roommates ran out to meet me, and we jumped up and down screaming with joy. . . . That night I offered more thanks for the blessing that Father in heaven had added to my life that day.”[40] This account shows the pure joy that she felt after hearing such a wonderful revelation.

These accounts open the eyes of the reader to the relief of anguish that the women felt when the ban was lifted. It is through reading these moments of pure joy that one comes to realize what the lifting of the ban truly meant to them, making Official Declaration 2 seem more critical.

Experiences with the Temple

Jane Manning James passed away in 1908, seventy years before the ban was lifted. However, her desire was not forgotten, and in 1979 her temple work was performed for her via proxy.[41] What a special day for all of those involved—to do for Jane what she so badly wanted to do for herself: be assured salvation and eternal life. Jane was a symbol of the collective desire for people of all race and color to have access to temple blessings.

When Mary Frances Sturlaugson went to the Provo Utah Temple to receive her endowment, the experience felt surreal. “I felt as though hundreds of spirits were encircling me. There was such a feeling of love, it was almost overwhelming.”[42] As she sat during the presentation of the endowment, she began to cry. “No more limitations. . . . I was actually sitting in the house of the Lord. I could now be married and sealed to an eternal mate; I could do temple work for my ancestors; I could have my family sealed; my children would be able to serve missions. The full blessings of the kingdom were open to me now.”[43] This experience affected not only Mary, but others in the room with her during the session. As she entered the celestial room, she noticed the tears of others that were shed in love for her on that blessed day.[44] Surely those in the celestial room with her took that moment to evaluate their own blessings and privileges, for Mary was just now receiving what they had had access to their entire adult lives.

Mary Lucile Bankhead had a different experience attending the temple for the first time. She said that the ladies would stare at her as if they didn’t know why she was there. Even though people were staring at her, she was so happy to be there that she didn’t care what other people were thinking.[45] She knew that her time had come and she enjoyed herself that first time at the temple and every other time she went.[46] Mary Lucile Bankhead was so happy to be there that it didn’t matter what anyone else thought. She knew that Heavenly Father was looking after her and was pleased with her worthiness to enter the temple.

Experiences with Missions

Jerri Harwell waited until she finished school in 1979 before submitting her mission papers. In the meantime, she began preparing for her mission by reading everything she could, including the standard works, Church manuals, and other books recommended to her by Church members.[47] She also prepared by doing genealogy work.[48] Jerri was called to the Texas Houston Mission and was able to do more genealogy work and bless the lives of those she served.[49]

Mary Frances Sturlaugson sent her mission papers in to the First Presidency one month following the priesthood revelation. She received word less than a week later that she was called to the Texas San Antonio Mission.[50] She was hesitant to serve there because of all of the persecution she knew that she would face. Mary Frances Sturlaugson had to continually battle to teach people the Church’s stance on blacks and the priesthood. Though it would seem that members would be more accepting of blacks after the lifting of the ban, some people still had a hard time accepting black people in the Church. Although she still faced discrimination from those around her, it must have brought her great comfort to know that she, being both black and female, had access to all of the blessings of heaven.

Conclusion

Mary Frances Sturlaugson said, “Being a Mormon has simply given me the greatest of all comforts through my trials of being black and female. For, you see, to know the will of God is the greatest knowledge; to suffer the will of God is the greatest heroism; to do the will of God is the greatest achievement; and to have the Lord’s approval on your work is the greatest happiness.”[51] Truly, these black women carried out the will of God and maintained their faith even when they were denied the most precious blessings available on earth. Their accounts are full of moments of doubt and confusion turning into peace and hope through the Spirit of the Lord. Their examples of using their relationship with the Lord to find optimism, patience, and faith should live on forever. However, their stories are not as widespread as others. It is important to always include the voices of these women when narrating the lifting of the priesthood ban, for their experiences are just as inspiring and uplifting as those had by anyone else who lived during this time. The lifting of the ban brought blessings to women just as much as it did to men, and the literature in the Church manuals and other publications on the priesthood ban should reflect that. The story of the priesthood ban is only half told if the stories, emotions, and lessons of these faithful black women are not included.

Notes

[1]Edward L. Kimball, “Spencer W. Kimball and the Revelation on Priesthood,” BYU Studies 47, no. 2 (2008): 9.

[2]Kimball, “Revelation on Priesthood,” 9.

[3]Armand L. Mauss, “The LDS Church and the Race Issue,” http://www.blacklds.org/mauss.

[4]It is important to note that this was a matter of heritage, meaning that if a person had even a drop of African blood, he or she could not hold the priesthood. For the purpose of this paper, those referred to as black men and women are those that were denied the priesthood and other blessings because of their African ancestry.

[5]Kimball, “Revelation on Priesthood,” 10.

[6]“Every Faithful, Worthy Man,” in The Doctrine and Covenants Student Manual: Religion 324–325 (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1981), 364–365.

[7]Kimball, “Revelation on Priesthood,” 7.

[9]Mary Frances Sturlaugson, A Soul So Rebellious (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1981), 2, 50.

[10]Jerri A. Harwell, Leaning on Prayer (Provo, UT: Spring Creek Book Company, 2004), 8.

[11]Harwell, Leaning on Prayer, 8.

[12]Mary Lucile Bankhead, interview by Alan Cherry, April 11, 1985, LDS Afro-American Oral History Project, Charles Redd Center for Western Studies, L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Brigham Young University, 11, 15, 17.

[13]Bankhead, interview, 17.

[14]Margaret Blair Young and Darius Aidan Gray, Bound for Canaan (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 2002), 383.

[15]Ronald G. Coleman and Darius A. Gray, “Two Perspectives: The Religious Hopes of ‘Worthy’ African American Latter-day Saints before the 1978 Revelation,” in Black and Mormon, ed. Newell G. Bringhurst and Darron T. Smith (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2004), 53.

[16]Sturlaugson, A Soul So Rebellious, 54–56.

[17]Sturlaugson, A Soul So Rebellious, 57.

[18]Sturlaugson, A Soul So Rebellious, 58.

[19]Harwell, Leaning on Prayer, 12–13.

[20]Harwell, Leaning on Prayer, 12–13.

[21]Harwell, Leaning on Prayer, 13.

[22]Harwell, Leaning on Prayer, 14; emphasis in original.

[23]Harwell, Leaning on Prayer, 16.

[24]Sturlaugson, A Soul So Rebellious, 62.

[25]Sturlaugson, A Soul So Rebellious, 63.

[26]Sturlaugson, A Soul So Rebellious, 64.

[27]Kimball, “Revelation on Priesthood,” 35.

[28]Kimball, “Revelation on Priesthood,” 40.

[29]Kimball, “Revelation on Priesthood,” 47–49.

[30]Kimball, “Revelation on Priesthood,” 50.

[31]Kimball, “Revelation on Priesthood,” 53–54.

[32]Kimball, “Revelation on Priesthood,” 54–58.

[33]Kimball, “Revelation on Priesthood,” 60–65.

[34]President Gordon B. Hinckley, “Priesthood Restoration,” Ensign, October 1988, 69. An edited version of a talk given May 15, 1988, at the Churchwide fireside commemorating the 159th anniversary of the restoration of the priesthood.

[35]Hinckley, “Priesthood Restoration,” 70.

[36]Harwell, Leaning on Prayer, 17.

[37]Bankhead, interview, 20.

[38]Bankhead, interview, 20.

[39]Sturlaugson, A Soul So Rebellious, 68.

[40]Sturlaugson, A Soul So Rebellious, 68.

[41]Coleman and Gray, “Two Perspectives,” 54.

[42]Sturlaugson, A Soul So Rebellious, 77.

[43]Sturlaugson, A Soul So Rebellious, 78.

[44]Sturlaugson, A Soul So Rebellious, 78.

[45]Bankhead, interview, 20.

[46]Bankhead, interview, 21.

[47]Harwell, Leaning on Prayer, 19–20.

[48]Harwell, Leaning on Prayer, 20–23.

[49]Harwell, Leaning on Prayer, 24–28.

[50]Sturlaugson, A Soul So Rebellious, 75.

[51]Mary Sturlaugson Eyer, He Restoreth My Soul (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1982), 92.