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Walker Lewis: Faithful Black Elder

We’re winding down our Black History Month conversations with Dr. Newell Bringhurst.  In our next conversation, we’ll talk about Walker Lewis, a black elder in Boston, Massachusetts.  In fact Wilford Woodruff once described this faithful black elder as “an example to our more whiter brethren.”

Newell:  He was based in Lowell, Massachusetts and he was a barber.  He also belonged to a black Masonic lodge.  There was kind of an interesting Masonic connection there with him.  Connell O’Donovan has done a lot more research on him than I have and shown that he had interaction with a number of apostles that were coming through, so he was well known amongst the apostles that were coming through.  It was William Smith, the younger brother of Joseph Smith that ordained him an elder.

It’s William Appleby who expresses shock when he comes upon him and he finds out Walker Lewis is an elder in the church and this is after the death of Joseph Smith, and [Appleby] writes back, “Is it right that this man should hold the priesthood?  If it is so I have yet to learn it.”

So that’s caused some people to say the ban maybe was in place even earlier but there isn’t other evidence to support that.  Maybe it was just because whatever was going through Walker Lewis’s mind.  There just weren’t that many blacks in the church.  Maybe this was kind of an unusual situation for him.

Ultimately as I say he becomes kind of a well-known figure.  They don’t seem to question his priesthood.  That kind of supports the argument and is one more indication that there was no ban on black ordination.  Even in later church leaders, all the way down into the 20th century when Bennion is doing his study in [19]54, church leaders acknowledged that Walker Lewis had been ordained.  That was acknowledged by even J. Reuben Clark.  I discuss this in an article that is going to be forthcoming, the ’54 recollections and the church struggling with whether blacks could be ordained and what could be the historical justifications were.

But getting back to Walker Lewis himself, he eventually makes his way out to Utah thinking that maybe he can get his endowments but they deny him so he makes his way back to Boston or to Lowell and resumes his barber practice.  There are suggestions that later on, Jane James wants to be sealed to Walker Lewis because she is aware of who Walker Lewis was and that he was indeed a priesthood holder.  To bolster the legitimacy of her request for endowments, she says “Can I be sealed to Walker Lewis?”  Of course that is denied.  That is a poignant story in and of itself.

Had you heard of Walker Lewis before?

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