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Ruffin Bridgeforth, first black high priest, eulogized as a pioneer

Ruffin Bridgeforth, first black high priest, eulogized as a pioneer

Ruffin Bridgeforth, the first black Latter-day Saint to be ordained a high priest and one of the first to receive the priesthood, was eulogized March 26 by President Gordon B. Hinckley and others at funeral services in the Sandy Utah Midvalley Stake Center.

Brother Bridgeforth, 74, died March 21, having endured diabetes and heart-bypass surgery during the final years of his life. Last year, he was honored for 25 years of service as the president of the Genesis Group, an organization of black Latter-day Saints formed to support and fellowship one another in the gospel. (See Oct. 26, 1996, Church News.) He and two counselors were called by the First Presidency to preside over the group in 1971, seven years before the revelation extending priesthood ordination to all worthy male Church members without regard for race or color.After the revelation was announced, Brother Bridgeforth was ordained a high priest, then, during his life, served on two high councils, in two bishoprics and as a high priests group leader.

Attending the funeral with President Hinckley were his counselors in the First Presidency, President Thomas S. Monson and President James E. Faust. Also attending were President Boyd K. Packer, acting president of the Quorum of the Twelve, who spoke; Elder David B. Haight of the Quorum of the Twelve; Elder Loren C. Dunn of the Seventy; and Elder Douglas H. Smith, formerly of the Seventy.

"All of our thoughts go back to the organization of the Genesis Group some 25 years ago, when Brother Monson, Brother Packer and I were asked by the Brethren to go down and effect that organization," said President Hinckley, who himself set apart Brother Bridgeforth as president of the group. "Douglas Smith, who is here, was with us

then as a regional representativeT and we started something, I think, that has been of tremendous significance.

"I am inclined at times to look upon all that has happened to the black members of the Church and for the lengthening shadow of that first small and humble beginning that took place, as I remember, in the old Third Ward building on 7th South and State Street."

President Hinckley praised Brother Bridgeforth as "a man of faith, a man who was close to his people and loved them and counseled them and blessed them and helped them with their struggles, their problems, their questions, their outward reach as they served in the Church. He stands as a great pioneer in this day when we honor pioneers."

The prophet expressed appreciation to Elder Haight, who "has kept us constantly advised of Ruffin's condition. He has visited him in the hospital, he has talked with him, he has looked after him, he has brought us word constantly of his condition."

President Packer recalled the time when the revelation was received. "When the time came that ordinations could take place, Ruffin . . . was not the first ordained, as many would have expected. That was because of the absence from the city of some of the local priesthood authorities. From time to time, President Spencer W.T Kimball would ask about him, and one day I reported to him that this coming Sunday night, I would be at a sacrament meeting in the ward where Ruffin's name would be presented to receive the priesthood."

After the sacrament meeting, President Packer recalled, he ordained Brother Bridgeforth, whose first wife, Helena, was in a wheelchair at the time. After the ordination, Brother Bridgeforth asked the apostle to give his wife a blessing.

"I think I should have regretted all the days of my life if I had done so," he remembered. "I laid my hands on her head and just as I was to speak, I thought, `Ruffin, you can now give this blessing.' And when he began that blessing - and he needed no coaching - by the authority of the Melchizedek Priesthood, that, in a very interesting way, was a moment in Church history."

Darius Gray, a counselor in the original Genesis Group presidency, recalled meeting, in the late 1960s, with Brother Bridgeforth and the other counselor, Eugene Orr, to discuss organizing the group.

"We knelt in prayer, the first time I ever knelt with two other black Latter-day Saints, and Ruffin was the voice for that prayer," he said, adding that the Genesis Group resulted from that meeting and others with several of the brethren seated on the stand.

"The thing I learned from that association with Ruffin Bridgeforth was what a humble man he was. He didn't seek position. He didn't seek acclaim. He was just a true, spiritual man."

He added that he never complained about his illnesses, that when he and Brother Bridgeforth's present wife, Betty, would visit him in the hospital following surgery, his first words to her would be, "Hello, darling."

He asked how many in attendance had heard Brother Bridgeforth bear testimony of the Savior. Nearly everyone in the congregation raised his or her hand.

In tribute to her husband, Sister Bridgeforth played one of his favorite hymns, "Love One Another," on the piano.

"He wanted all of us to love each other," she commented before the solo. "He enjoyed so much hearing me play the piano. So my sweetheart, I'm going to honor you today by playing that song for you, and I'm going to try to play it the way you like it. If not, you can tell me about it later."

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