The address given by President Dallin H. Oaks at Friday's "Be One" celebration of the 40th anniversary of the priesthood revelation at the Conference Center, provided by Mormon Newsroom.
My dear brothers and sisters, there are some events that persist in almost everyone’s memory. If you were living at the time of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, you remember where you were and what you were doing when you heard that terrible news. The same is true of the shocking attacks on what we call 9/11. For Latter-day Saints who were adults at that time, the 1978 revelation on the priesthood was an event of such magnitude that it is also etched in memory.
The news reached me on a telephone that seldom rang. My two sons and I were working in the yard of a mountain home we built as a place of retreat from my heavy responsibilities as president of Brigham Young University. These sons were between missions. The oldest had returned three weeks earlier, and the youngest was preparing to leave a year later. The earth was caving onto our driveway from a steep slope, and we were trying to stabilize the hillside. We were in the midst of this project, shovels in hand, when the phone rang inside the house. I knew it must be important. Only a small number of people had that telephone number, and all of them had agreed not to call me about anything that could possibly wait.
The caller was Elder Boyd K. Packer. He told me about the revelation on the priesthood, which was just being announced. We exchanged expressions of joy, and I walked back to the hillside. I sat down on the pile of dirt we had been moving and beckoned to my sons. As I told them that all worthy male members of the Church could now be ordained to the priesthood, I wept for joy. That is the scene etched in my memory of this unforgettable announcement 40 years ago — sitting on a pile of dirt and weeping as I told my sons of this divine revelation.
Why was the revelation on the priesthood such an occasion of joy? As a young man studying and working in the legal profession, I lived in the Midwest and the East for 17 years. The restriction on the ordination and temple blessings of persons of African ancestry — almost invisible to me as I grew up in Utah — was a frequent subject of my conversations in my life in Chicago and Washington, D.C.
I observed the pain and frustration experienced by those who suffered these restrictions and those who criticized them and sought for reasons. I studied the reasons then being given and could not feel confirmation of the truth of any of them. As part of my prayerful study, I learned that, in general, the Lord rarely gives reasons for the commandments and directions He gives to His servants. I determined to be loyal to our prophetic leaders and to pray — as promised from the beginning of these restrictions — that the day would come when all would enjoy the blessings of priesthood and temple. Now, on June 8, 1978, that day had come, and I wept for joy. Many Latter-day Saints felt joy at this news. The numbers of valiant and faithful members of African descent who had accepted the gospel despite the restriction was then very small. Therefore, most of those who rejoiced were Anglo-Americans like me, who felt the pain of black brothers and sisters and longed for their relief. Among those who also wept for joy at the priesthood revelation were Dr. Russell M. Nelson and then-deputy commissioner of education Henry B. Eyring. In 1978, both of these men had lived outside the somewhat isolated environment of the Mountain West for more than a total of 40 years. They had also witnessed the pain of this restriction among their associates.
When we consider what has happened in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and in the lives of its members since 1978, we all have cause for celebration.
Institutionally, the Church reacted swiftly to the revelation on the priesthood.
Ordinations and temple recommends came immediately. The reasons that had been given to try to explain the prior restrictions on members of African ancestry — even those previously voiced by revered Church leaders — were promptly and publicly disavowed. Institutional policies or practices that could have inhibited the full integration of members of African ancestry, such as the separate congregations common in many Christian churches, were prevented by the longstanding LDS policy of ward membership being determined geographically. Similarly, membership records continued to make no mention of race or ethnicity. The Lord had spoken through His prophet, and His Church obeyed.
In contrast, changes in the hearts and practices of individual members did not come suddenly and universally. Some accepted the effects of the revelation immediately and gracefully. Some accepted gradually. But some, in their personal lives, continued the attitudes of racism that have been painful to so many throughout the world, including the past 40 years. Others have wanted to look back, concentrating attention on re-examining the past, including seeking reasons for the now-outdated restrictions.
However, most in the Church, including its senior leadership, have concentrated on the opportunities of the future rather than the disappointments of the past. They have trusted the wisdom and timing of the Lord and accepted the directions of His prophet. In doing so, we have realized the eternal significance of God’s prophetic teaching that “one being is as precious in his sight as the other” (Jacob 2:21). In doing so, we have received new impetus to fulfill the command that we are to teach the everlasting gospel unto all — to “all nations, kindreds, tongues and people” (D&C 42:58).
To concern ourselves with what has not been revealed or with past explanations by those who were operating with limited understanding can only result in speculation and frustration. To all who have such concerns, we extend our love and this special invitation. Let us all look forward in the unity of our faith and trust in the Lord’s promise that “he inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female” (2 Nephi 26:33; emphasis added).
As we look to the future, one of the most important effects of the revelation on the priesthood is its divine call to abandon attitudes of prejudice against any group of God’s children. Racism is probably the most familiar source of prejudice today, and we are all called to repent of that. But throughout history, many groups of God’s children are or have been persecuted or disadvantaged by prejudices, such as those based on ethnicity or culture or nationality or education or economic circumstances.
As servants of God who have the knowledge and responsibilities of His great plan of salvation, we should hasten to prepare our attitudes and our actions — institutionally and personally — to abandon all personal prejudices. As President Russell M. Nelson said following our recent meeting with the national officers of the NAACP: “Together we invite all people, organizations, and government[s] to work with greater civility, eliminating prejudice of all kinds."
Even as we unite to abandon all attitudes and practices of prejudice, we should remember that it is not prejudice for the Church to insist on certain rules in furtherance of the Lord’s requirement of worthiness to enter a temple. The Lord has declared that obedience to covenants and commandments is an essential requirement to enjoy sacred blessings. Any attempt to erase divine requirements for eternal life and eternal families would be like trying to establish Satan’s plan that “all would be saved.” We mortals already rejected Satan’s plan in our premortal lives. We chose the plan of our Heavenly Father, which provides the freedom to choose and keep the eternal covenants and commandments that apply equally to all. The equality of God is not equal outcomes for all, but equal opportunity for all.
Our determination in this program is to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the revelation on the priesthood by looking forward. As we do, we express special appreciation for our marvelous members of African descent, especially our African-American members who have persisted in faith and faithfulness through a difficult transition period of fading prejudice. Now we unite together in concentrating our attention on the glorious post-1978 effects of that revelation in blessing the children of God all over the world. As our prophetic leaders declared at that time:
“The Lord has now made known his will for the blessing of all his children throughout the earth who will hearken to the voice of his authorized servants, and prepare themselves to receive every blessing of the gospel.”
Now temples are being built in many nations for the blessing of God’s children on both sides of the veil. On earth and in heaven, we rejoice together. This is essential to our preparation for the Second Coming of Him who declared through a Book of Mormon prophet that “he commandeth none that they shall not partake of his salvation” (2 Nephi 26:24) and who declared through a modern prophet that “if ye are not one ye are not mine” (D&C 38:27).
We now invite you to join us in a program of messages and music that share the joy felt all over the world as more and more of God’s children enjoy the blessings of the gospel we celebrate! In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.