Lester Bush Looking Back 40 Years

Lester Bush gave the McMurrin Lecture at the University of Utah on Oct 8, 2015.  These are my notes from his lecture.  He discussed the changes over the last 40 years since he wrote his groundbreaking article Mormonism’s Negro Doctrine.  Paul Reeve introduced Bush.  (I tried to make this as readable as possible–some parts may be a little hard to follow.)

Reeve – Bush was groundbreaking because he tied the ban to Brigham Young, not Joseph Smith.  Bush discredited the previous Missouri Thesis {which blamed the ban on slavery issues associated in Missouri}.  Ed Kimball acknowledged Spencer W. Kimball read Bush’s article, and it impacted Kimball’s thinking.  In 1963, Kimball acknowledged an open attitude about the ban, and than the ban was a possible error that the Lord might forgive.


Looking back, and forward, Mormonism 42 years later.

Bush – what has changed, stayed same, steps still need to occur?

What has changed – easiest.  All good.  1978 revelation.  Ordination of blacks to priesthood and HP and temple ordinances.  12 yrs later, 1st black GA, recently 2 more.  In 1980, the LDS Church entered black Africa in Nigeria.  There are now stakes in 5 African countries outside south Africa.  Far exceeded my expectations of what was possible in 1973.  After 37 years, no African American General Authorities.

What has changed?  There is much more primary source material now.  I’m amazed at new material available via internet.  Joseph Smith Papers, Wilford Woodruff journal, David O. McKay diaries.  Many periodicals searchable.  Download to computer.  Now studies online.  Transformative developments.  Internet.

New understandings available, avalanche of published material.  Once there were 97 articles published on the subject between 1900-73, 2/3 of which was published since 1965.  Since 1973, attention has intensified.  18 publications.  30 in 1980s, 36 since 2000.  118 books/articles since 1973.  Most important now.

1973, had enough to get basic outline, but publications since offer new light.  Some info pub after 1973, but continues.  More information available about early blacks like Samuel Chambers, Jane James.  Warner McCary, Elijah Able, Walker Lewis.

1990s, church in Africa.  Most comprehensive within past decade.  Walker Lewis, Joseph Ball, Elijah Able, freemasonry.  First book study since 1981 published.

1960s when did intense research, openness in church, MHA, dialogue, Leonard Arrington.  Cannon faced problems from church policies that limited church music.  He had a dream, in which the impression came to him that he had died and was answering Lord for lack of action.  He answered that he was “following policy” but Lord said “you knew better.”  Don’t see that kind of response now.

1973, didn’t believe I knew better on blacks.  Knew history better to that point.  Didn’t think it would end ban, but thought it would lead the Church Historical department to develop more fully.  Disappointing that Packer said no.  Historical department had been barred from priesthood question.

Learned GA’s read article.  Missed response.  Told by GA that stirred pot, not be acknowledged.  Just recently learned that Spencer W. Kimball marked it up.  Decades later church historians studied blacks and priesthood now, but not in 1970s.

Spencer W. Kimball gave it some some attn., still conjectural.  Ed concluded in 1963 letter that prophets 133 years had maintained ban instituted by Joseph Smith.  If this wasn’t true, then perhaps Lord could change and release and forgive possible error.  Suggested flexibility on part of Kimball.  If I had known this back then, I would have believed reflected language of Ed rather than his father.

In public statements Pres. Kimball seemed confident, quoted Abraham, always responded with traditional explanations.  After ordained 12th president of church, he responded to reporter that there would probably be no change.  Stated it was a policy of Lord, he know of no change, but subject to revelations.  Very similar 2 months later on Today Show.  Did not anticipate change.  Lord will reveal.  Despite conservative responses.

Pres Kimball was intensely focused on ban.  In 1975, distributed task to counselors, early church leaders, then 12.  In June 1977, he asked 3 General Authorities to give papers.  He asked what BYU President Dallin Oaks thought about the ban.  Kimball talked to dozens.  Fall 1977, Kimball seemed to be searching.  What would happen?  Carlson responded. Kimball felt his successor wouldn’t act.

In 1978 Kimball talked to Q12.  Camilla had great deal to fight and was prepared to go rest of life, fight and defend.  On March 23, told counselors priesthood ban should end.  They said they would support.  Began to work on q12.  1 June 1978 met Counselors, would make it possible to extend to all races.  2 hours discussed, priesthood to end.  McConkie unanimity.  Told Lord, if this is not right, Kimball would be true rest of life.  But it was confirmed ban should end.

In 1976 he told someone he had been praying 15 years with no answer.  Or by legal to brazil.  Greater understanding of priesthood ban.  Greater latitude to act.  Greater urgency than predecessors.  Son said revelation not come unless desired.  On tip toes.

Offer little or no discussion in 1978 or later.  I wrote 1984, revelation alluded to, quietly declared dead.  Wasn’t dead, traditional understanding continued, Mormon Doctrine continued 32 more years.  2006 Jeffrey R. Holland answered PBS about teaching of blacks.  Beginning to separate folklore from ban. “however well intended, almost all inadequate or wrong. Don’t know why in place.”

2 yrs later, 2008, BYU Studies, candid summary of church teachings on blacks.  Notable because had permission of GA’s.  National attn. 2012 Washington Post Randy Bott who gave reasonable summary of 1970s beliefs.  Cain killed Abel, Egyptus black, married Ham, cursed and barred from priesthood by Noah.  Book of Abraham says all descendants were black and barred.  1949, church leaders said ban resulted from premortal existence.  Many believed less valiant, fence sitters.  This theory has fallen out of favor.  Bott continued that Lord gives all he sees fit, compared blacks to a young child given keys to car.  Blacks not ready and that the ban was the greatest blessing to blacks.

As appalling as it was to read, I felt bad for Bott.  He presented authoritative views of past leaders, and it hadn’t been disavowed.  Not different than Mormon Doctrine which was still published until 2010, and was still sold in 2012 until an African American member purchased remaining copies to get it off the market.

Church issued rebuttal, prompted by media, and said positions of Bott not representative of Church views.  There was a restriction, but not known why, how it began.  It ended decades ago.  Some explained reasons, but this was just speculation, not doctrine.  Church not bound by speculation. Condemn racism by all in and out of church.

Rebuttal was disingenuous when stated it was not known why, how, dismissal to speculation.  In 2013 carried new intro to OD 2.  More candid, acknowledged some history, some blacks ordained, but early it stopped.  No clear insights into origins.  Leaders felt revelation needed.  Came to Pres Kimball and confirmed in June 1 , 1978 which removed all restrictions.  By far most forthright later years.

Lds.org statement race and priesthood, cleared by First Presidency and q12.  During first 2 decades few blacks ordained, Elijah able participated in temple Kritland, baptzied as proxy in Illinois.  No blacks were denied in Joseph Smith’s lifetime.  1852 Brigham Young publicly announced blacks can no longer be ordained.  Many advanced theories.  None accepted today as official doctrine.  There were justifications that were widespread ideas for legalization of black servitude.  One view since 1730s, blacks descended from Cain.  Curse was dark skin.  Servitude was second curse.  Ham’s indiscretion.  Slave in Utah abolished.  Today church disavows theories of black skin or unrighteous actions in premortal life.  Mixed races are ok.

Leaders condemn all racism past, present in any form.  In contrast to 1973, historians have been consulted.  Contributions implicit in statements, explicitly in race and priesthood essay.  Footnotes to scholars.  Non-LDS studies footnoted, first in church issued statement, contributions of African American member for explicit for disavowal.  Although recent statements not known.  Has anyone asked Brigham Young?  He introduced ban.  He will be clear.

Young believed Africans were descendants of Cain.  Brigham never said blacks were denied priesthood, but were descendants of Cain as are black Africans.  Successors said same thing, First Presidency in 1949.  The omission in 1969 church statement reflects public relations decision, not a change in beliefs.  Previous year, it was said that by talking more, the “more we have to explain.”  Recommended that future statement be “clearly positive and brief.”

Some speculations after the fact to explain basis for doctrine, not the ban but to why descendants of Cain denied.  Pre-existence.

No one had been free of understandings of age.  Wisdom discredited and abandoned.  Good thing.  Not global knowledge but global accomplishments.  Age all more remarkable.  Examples of ideas doctrines did not survive.  Favorite was Orson Pratt, brightest early leader.  He favored giving blacks the right to vote, opposed Brigham Youn’s advocacy of servitude, and curses across generations.

Notwithstanding his progressive beliefs, in 1845 he determined how much older Christ was than youngest spirit.  He assumed that spiritual gestation was about a year, just like on earth.  Believed earth inhabited 8000 years, then 1/3 cast out.  Pratt believed solar system had 30 other planets in solar system.  Yielded spirit population of 1 quadrillion 20 trillion.  The age differential of last born.  Recalculated if a spirit was born 1 per minute, then time was just 1 billion, 900 million years.  If spirit births followed an insect model, just30 million years.  Short gestations improbable.

In 1853, he revised assumptions, just 7000 years, disregarded all other spheres, 100 billion spirits.  100 polygamous wives.  He had a creative mind. Pratts efforts were not doctrine.  Doesn’t detract from his brilliance 160 years later.  Many learned men were in agreement.

In 1853, Orson Pratt was not unique.  If a person lost an arm, does spirit lose it too?  What sustained ban for so many decades, after science.  100 years prior, church leaders visited question.  1879 and 1950s, at least 23 First Presidency or q12 meetings where ban was discussed.  There were cases with some distant African ancestry.  Ask for flexibility.  There was still a failure to relax 1 drop rule from precedent and pseudo science.  Racial identity thought as blood that could reconstitute on remote ancestor.  Brigham Young believed, Joseph F Smith too.

Several occasions, collection of previous rulings to help with discussions.  Narrow focus.  Methodology always same, look back at revered predecessors.  Given stature, made sense to consider other decisions.  In hindsight there was no effort to verify earlier beliefs or conventional wisdom.  Ban passed unchanged through generations of leaders.

Approach unfair to institution and stated beliefs perpetuated.  How fair to judge current with 150 yrs in future.  Not until 1960s did anyone argue to end ban.  Hugh B Brown, proposed twice, 1963.  He tried unsuccessful to allow blacks to have Aaronic Priesthood in order to open mission to Africa.  Curious idea, Brown’s thinly disguised first step.  In 1969 tried to end ban altogether.  Brown thought McKay thought ban was not of divine origin.

Finally involvement of historians on church history.  Had hoped 1973 finally happened 40 years later.  Hard for leaders to acknowledge doctrinal mistake because of belief that leaders are infallible with regards to doctrine, many think more important.  But leading brethren didn’t believe colleagues were infallible.

Oaks says all know differences of opinion, some wrong.  Uchtdorf quoted 2013 “there have been times leaders made mistakes” and said or done things not in values of church only perfect in perfect beings.  Works though us.  Earlier made observations, spoke doctrines where subsequently learned they were not moved by Holy Ghost.  Clearest BH Roberts, q70.  Own race bias, in 1908 possible of church leader speaking under prejudice.

What limits usefulness of these statements is that they are not specific and are limited.  Moreover, some leaders believe substantial errors impossible.  God won’t suffer error or He will remove leader.  BH Roberts, great things concerning salvation, have right to expect solid rock.  God gives certainty.  Notion presently force unseemly argument, blacks not fundamental.

Final analysis, 3 questions.  What was basis for ban?  Ask Brigham Young, he was the man who implemented the ban.  He said descendants of Cain were ineligible.  Why Young? Joseph Smith seemed to hold same beliefs regarding black ancestry.  Many not get closer.  Differing personal beliefs in 1847 with interracial marriage, masonic restrictions, led BY to new conclusion.

3rd question, discredited heredity.  Many reviews undertaken that show the limited knowledge of what early leaders, no broad effort of imported reasons.

Cain connection remained foundation of discriminatory policies.  Little question where headed.  Records clear.  Young’s beliefs led racial purity to bar blacks from priesthood and temple.  Young said repeatedly. Just look in Journal of Discourses and search Brigham Young and Cain.  Brigham may have felt he was inspired, but 100 years later, he was wrong about lineage and implications.  Still acknowledge that he made mistake.  Failure to acknowledge leads impression that church thinks ban was of divine origin, even if explanations not.

Walk though history, didn’t want to bruise testimony. Learned whites have a problem discussing race, not blacks with history.  Blacks view problem as “just a white guy thing.”  What a relief!  Assume bias everywhere.  They were more worried that God thought (not white guys) they were less worthy.

2nd racism

Theological justifications for personal bias say God on their side.  Church may acknowledge.  Groundwork laid.  Ban began with Brigham Young, rejection with Smith.  Admit that Young’s belief that myths led to ban.  Believe substantial proportion of members believe this already.

1973, lead 3 conclusions:  and less PC language.  Do we have evidence JS denial?  What 19th century perspectives on race affect Brigham Young?  Historical PoGP relevant to black priesthood question, to 19th century assumptions?

All 3 clear.  Demarcation of policies affirmed.  Brigham Young though there was a Cain connection.  He has spoken against PoGP justification. Church yet to acknowledge.  Cursory review.  Awkward, past time to be done, story would be old history.  Hopefully 35 years from now, it will be history.


Q&A Session

What sources do you wish you had to consult that are not avail now?

Would like to have known about key blacks, such as Walker Lewis, others.  Important.  Not hidden, didn’t dig right spot.  Closest thing to yes.  I would like to have everything 1973 that had in 1969, been faster.  Key things in research 1969 where reviewed Steven Taggart, proposed Missouri thesis.  Brother at BYU mentioned that article to special collections, must have read something never heard of.  I’d like to look, oversees, but found a way.  Called somebody.  Most useful, no other secret knwolege, fuller idea of progression.  Is there a secret cache? No.

Consequences of revealing historical records? A collates over last 40 years.

Complications. Some affirming.  Important to them, wonderful.  Didn’t get commendation from church.  10 years later, 5 years after revelation, Mark E Peterson was still upset because I had written that article.  Wanted stake president to take action against me.  Stake President talked to me, and said there was no problem.

Black women couldn’t go to the temple, and we are still leaving this out of the conversation.  When we talk about ban, we do not acknowledge implications on black Mormon womens.  Can you speak to that?

Been a while, blacks, including women or men ultimately allowed temple for proxy baptism, not anything else.  Not clearly written out.  Women denied because priesthood ordinances, hooked up to black men no priesthood.  There was a time in 60s and 70s when black women and men or women allowed to head auxiliaries at ward level, think it was tactical to distinguish not priesthood holder.  In wake of (may be wrong) that ended with priesthood revelation came.  Harmful for women.  Sorry for floundering on answer.

At some point someone will write about history of women and priesthood.  I believe it is inevitable women will get priesthood, based on previous familiarity.  I’m not sure why they want it, not sure why men want either.

Medicine, evolution on church guidance way society progresses.  Path here is so clear that seems impossible that not going to be similar progression in church

Can you talk about the implications on church position of racism in Book of Mormon, especially 2 Nephi 5

That looks like Lots of Joseph Smith’s in language in Book of Mormon.  Those ideas are reflection of what he imported. Hard to judge people who lived 180 years ago, conventional wisdom, progressives 1820s and 30s.  We know consider horrific.  Don’t know.

Brigham Young justified ban saying black men were sons of Cain.  Yet the 2nd Articcle of Faith says men are punished for own sins.  How did the leaders reconcile this contradiction?

Havent’ seen it. Paul Reeve’s book touches on that.  Orson Pratt didn’t think curse passed down the line.  There is a section in the D&C that says a heinous thing, curse through generations.  There is a little mixed message, doesn’t make sense.  Reason speculated because recognized individual issue, other fact than son of someone else.  Closest attempt to make argument, Joseph F Smith, had a notion of patriarchal lines, felt strong  lineage.  People lined up under big patriarchs preexistence.  Whole group of spirits under Cain in pre-existence.  When killed, they remained faithful to lineage, First Presidency discussion.  Failure to perform, more neutral one.  It’s kind of like the saying “Be true to your school.”

Not sure we had same God, my God would not do that to me.  You mentioned the Brazil effect on Priesthood restriction. Can you elaborate on that?

There was a key period in 1970s, building temple in Brazil.  Faithful black members were contributing.  Complex genetics. Harder they looked, more complex.  Had really faithful  members that clearly would not have access to temple, but were building the temple.  There was the story of a man and wife who sold jewelry, made other sacrifices knowing that they couldn’t enter.  Kimball had angst.  Compassionate man, internationally oriented man.  That’s what I’m referring to.  Set aside history, really concrete issue, maybe South Africa, not hypothetical.  1970s very real.

What are your comments or questions?


2 comments on “Lester Bush Looking Back 40 Years

  1. Lester Bush’s address is now available on Youtube:

  2. To see all the videos at the conference, go to


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