But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint. — Isa. 40:31
The history of Latter-day Saints of indigenous African heritage has largely been one of "waiting on the Lord," trusting that if they remain faithful, they will "mount up with wings as eagles" and will "run and not be weary and walk and not faint."
Since the priesthood revelation of 1978, which was voted as the top story of the century in a Church News poll, those of black African ancestry in nations throughout the world have willingly taken their places as an integral part of the Church. Pioneers in every sense of the word, these faithful members have accomplished in about 20 years the number of members that took the entire restored Church multiple generations to reach.
African-Americans have been members of the Church from its early days. One for whom the verse in Isaiah has strikingly direct application is Jane Elizabeth Manning James. She joined the Church in Wilton, Conn., in 1842 and then walked 800 miles with her family to be with the Latter-day Saints in Nauvoo, Ill., where she was welcomed "as the head of this little band," by the Prophet Joseph Smith. Later, she was part of the westward exodus to the Salt Lake Valley in the second pioneer company and, enduring adversity, she remained faithful to the Church for the rest of her life. Her grave was recently memorialized in the Salt Lake City cemetery. (See June 12, 1999, Church News, p. 11.)
There were others as well. Green Flake, a black Church member, is said to have driven Brigham Young's wagon across the plains. He and two other Church members of his race were in the first pioneer company.
For reasons that have never been fully revealed, the priesthood was restricted from men of African descent for nearly 150 years. Though the fact was a source of heartache to black and white Church members alike, over the years, some of African lineage did unite themselves with the Latter-day Saints, trusting in the assurance of Church leaders that at some time in God's eternal plan, the priesthood would be granted to all worthy males, regardless of race.
One such person was Ruffin Bridgeforth, a native of Louisiana who came to Utah in 1944 for employment. In a 1996 Church News interview, he recalled that the influence of a co-worker who was a Church member helped him overcome negative opinions he had heard about the Church. Later, he met and married his first wife, Helena, whose family were Church members and who, after their marriage, accepted the gospel message from missionaries. Later as a birthday present to her, Ruffin prepared himself for baptism.
In 1971, Brother Bridgeforth had become acquainted with two other black Church members: Darius Gray, a local television news reporter, and Eugene Orr, who worked at the library on the University of Utah campus. One night they met together in a classroom at the library to discuss the formation of a support group to fellowship black Latter-day Saints.
"The most memorable thing to me," Brother Gray recalled in a recent interview, "is that in 1971, there were so few members of the Church of African descent, and to have three black Latter-day Saint men kneel, have prayer in that classroom, asking God's guidance and counsel, that's what sticks with me.
"From that point, we approached the Brethren, and after a brief period, it was decided that three members of the Twelve — Elders Gordon B. Hinckley, Thomas S. Monson and Boyd K. Packer — would meet with us and work with us."
Brother Bridgeforth, who died in 1997, recalled in the 1996 interview: "After much prayer, we came up with the name 'Genesis.' It means 'beginning.' We felt it might be the beginning for many of our people in the gospel."
In October 1971, the three apostles met at the old Salt Lake Third Ward meetinghouse with about 200 black Church members, "many of them anticipating the day when the priesthood would come to them," Brother Bridgeforth said. The apostles organized the Genesis group with Brother Bridgeforth as president and Brother Gray and Brother Orr as first and second counselors.
Meanwhile, on the continent of Africa, the seeds of the gospel had been sown. In the early 1950s, devout Christians in Nigeria and Ghana had learned of the Church through literature and the Book of Mormon. They began writing letters to Church headquarters requesting more literature and Church membership.
"What began as a comparative trickle of requests in the early 1950s became a flood by the 1960s," recounted E. Dale LeBaron, former South Africa mission president, in a Nov. 3, 1998, BYU Devotional address. "More letters requesting literature were received from Nigeria and Ghana than from all the rest of the world combined."
Interested persons set up congregations and began meeting without authorization in the name of the Church.
In 1961, President David O. McKay assigned LaMar Williams, secretary to the Missionary Department, to go to Nigeria to determine if the people were sincere in their interest and willing to accept membership without holding the priesthood, Brother LeBaron said.
"He was not prepared for what he found there. He was met at the airport by 10 pastors with whom he had been corresponding. He was treated like royalty but surprised to discover that not only did each pastor operate independently, they were not even aware of each other."
Upon his return, Brother Williams provided Church leaders with the names and addresses of 15,000 unbaptized converts in west Africa. Unfortunately, Africa's most devastating civil war, the Biafran war, occurred in the area of these believers. This and other factors prevented the Church from being established in west Africa at the time.
"It is important to note," Brother LeBaron said, "that the Church made every effort to establish itself in west Africa but was prevented [by circumstances] from doing so."
Meanwhile, up until 1978, people in west Africa continued to meet unofficially as "Latter-day Saints" in various congregations. That experience is illustrated in the story of Sam Bainson, a young man who in February 1978 was invited by his sister to attend one of those congregations.
"I didn't know anything at all about the Church," recalled Brother Bainson, who today is a successful insurance agent and member of the bishopric of the Solon Ward, Kirtland Ohio Stake. The Sunday School lesson that day was on the Plan of Salvation. "This brother was talking about the purpose of life. We are here for a reason, to be tested whether we are going to be obedient to our Father in Heaven. I'd never had an experience like that before. I didn't know what I was feeling. All I knew was my mind was so clear; I felt this was true."
After the meeting, he was given a copy of the Book of Mormon. "I couldn't put it away," he said. "I'd never had anybody tell me about it before; I'd never seen it until that week. Yet I knew that book was true."
For many Latter-day Saints, it was one of those defining events, such as the Kennedy assassination or the moon landing, that fixes in memory exactly where one was and what one was doing at the time one received word of it.
In this case, the date was June 8, 1978. The news spread around the world as fast as radio and television waves could carry it: President Spencer W. Kimball had received a revelation that the day had come when all worthy male members would receive the priesthood.
The letter of announcement from the First Presidency would be sustained in general conference on Sept. 30 of that year as the one of the rare additions to the canon of scripture in this century. It is now in the Doctrine and Covenants as Official Declaration — 2.
That December, in a "roundtable" interview with Deseret News and Church News staff, President Kimball recounted concerning the revelation: "I went to the temple alone, and especially on Sundays and Saturdays when there were not organizations in the temple, when I could have it alone. It went on for some time as I was searching for this, because I wanted to be sure. We held a meeting of the Council of the Twelve in the temple on the regular day [June 1, 1978]. We considered this very seriously and thoughtfully and prayerfully.
"I asked the Twelve not to go home when the time came. I said, 'Now would you be willing to remain in the temple with us?' And they were. I offered the final prayer, and I told the Lord if this wasn't right, if He didn't want this change to come in the Church, that I would be true to it all the rest of my life, and I'd fight the world against it if that's what He wanted.
"We had this special prayer circle, then I knew that the time had come. . . . This revelation and assurance came to me so clearly that there was no question about it." (Church News, Jan. 6, 1979.)
Elder Bruce R. McConkie, a member of the Twelve at the time, recalled later: "The Spirit of the Lord rested mightily upon us all; we felt something akin to what happened on the day of Pentecost and at the dedication of the Kirtland Temple. From the midst of eternity, the voice of God, conveyed by the power of the Spirit, spoke to His prophet. . . . And we all heard the same voice, received the same message and became personal witnesses that the word received was the mind and will and voice of the Lord." (Bruce R. McConkie, Priesthood, p. 128.)
"What a great day that was," recalled Ruffin Bridgeforth.
Many expected that he would be the first black man ordained to the priesthood. That did not happen because of the absence of local priesthood authorities. He was among the first black high priests in the Church. He was ordained by Elder Packer.
At Brother Bridgeforth's funeral March 26, 1997, President Packer, now acting president of the Quorum of the Twelve, recalled that occasion, saying that after the ordination, Brother Bridgeforth asked him to give his ailing wife, Helena, a blessing. He said: "I think I should have regretted it all the days of my life if I had done so. 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."
Brother Gray, recalls that on the day the revelation was announced, he sought out his friend Heber Wolsey, then director of public communications for the Church.
"Heber came back to his office, and I was waiting, and we embraced," he said. "We cried. We could look out his office window at the Salt Lake Temple. It was a marvelous day!"
A small-business owner today, he has succeeded his mentor, Ruffin Bridgeforth, as president of Genesis, and the group continues to serve and fellowship established and new Latter-day Saints of African heritage, helping them to feel at home in a Church that might, in some ways, seem unfamiliar. It was Genesis, under Pres. Gray's leadership, that in June of this year organized the dedication of the new marker for the grave of Jane Elizabeth Manning James in the Salt Lake City cemetery.
In Ghana, Sam Bainson had continued to attend the congregation to which he was introduced. When a Church representative arrived to announce to the group that the revelation had been received, he did not understand at first. Then, in December, with the arrival of the first Church missionaries sent to Africa, Rendell and Rachel Mabey and Ted and Janath Cannon, he came to understand the importance of being baptized by one with the proper priesthood authority.
"My baptismal interview was 1:30 in the morning because there were so many of us that had to wait in line. And I was in the first group of converts there, baptized in the Atlantic Ocean in December of 1978."
With an irrepressible enthusiasm for missionary work, Brother Bainson soon moved to Nigeria to live and work, where he felt prospects for gaining new converts would be better. There he introduced many people to the gospel. While in Nigeria, he was called as the first LDS missionary to depart from west Africa. He served in the England Manchester Mission, where he also saw great success.
His former mission president, Ellis Ivory, assisted him in coming to the United States, where he met his future wife, Marcie. They enrolled together at the University of Wisconsin. He became a successful insurance agent in Milwaukee, and the couple moved a year ago with their three children to the Kirtland, Ohio, area so he could accept a promotion.
But he has watched with joy as the Church has grown in west Africa to the point that there are now 18 stakes there and a temple is planned for Ghana.
Brother Bridgeforth's wife, Helena, died not long after his ordination. He married Betty Johnson, in the Salt Lake Temple. She moved to Salt Lake City in 1980 from Chicago, Ill., where she had taught social studies and music in high school. Soon after moving to Salt Lake, she joined the Tabernacle Choir and remained a member of it for 15 years.
It was in Chicago that she listened to the message of missionaries and joined the Church on April 14, 1979.
For Sister Bridgeforth, who had marched in the civil rights movement with Martin Luther King and had worked with Jesse Jackson as choir director in his organization "Operation Push," it was a bold move to unite herself with what was perceived by many as an "all-white church." But she could not deny the truth, and she has endeavored to let the light of the gospel shine through her example. (She has since talked with the Rev. Jackson, and he has expressed his approval for her having "graduated" from his choir to the Tabernacle Choir.)
"Sometimes, the days get dark, and we don't understand why things are the way they are, with regard to the priesthood, among other things," she reflected. "But Ruffin and I both have felt that if we 'wait upon the Lord' and allow due time, all that is due us will not be denied, if we but endure."
Today, 21 years after the announcement of the revelation on the priesthood, thousands of Church members of black African descent throughout the world echo that sentiment.