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Why Brigham Changed His Mind on Black Ordination

Brigham Young is often seen as the person responsible for instituting the ban on black members from LDS temples and from the priesthood for male members.  It turns out that the story is a little more complicated than that.  Russell Stevenson, biographer of Elijah Ables, talks about a few incidences with some other early contemporaries of Elijah Ables, in which Brigham praised black ordination, specifically a faithful black elder in Massachusetts.

Russell:  When Brigham Young is addressing William McCary, he mentions explicitly the example of Walker Lewis in Massachusetts, and [Brigham] says [Walker] is one of the best elders that we have.  This is in the context that William McCary is talking about how unwelcome he is feeling within the Latter-day Saint community.  All of these different people are using the n-word to describe him.  They say, “There goes that old {n-word} and his white wife,” referring to Lucy Stanton who was the daughter of a former stake president.

Now the fact that Brigham Young would invoke the example of Walker Lewis as a way of assuring and maybe trying to make William McCary feel better about being within the Latter-day Saint community, that tells you that Brigham Young saw William McCary and Walker Lewis as being more or less equivalent in some regard or another, and certainly within the realm of holding the priesthood.

We will talk more about this man, named Walker Lewis, as well as a few other black people, and talk about why the ban was instituted in the first place.   This is a really important conversation and I hope you check it out…..

(Don’t forget to check out our previous conversations about Elijah Abel’s early life, his mission to Canada, and his troubles in Cincinnati.)

2 thoughts on “Why Brigham Changed His Mind on Black Ordination

  1. Interesting perspectives. Is there a contemporaneous source blinking Brigham Young to the progeny/“mulatto” argument?

    One aspect that John Turner brings out, is that McCary eventually turned out to be just plain nutso (claiming to be the reincarnation of various ancient prophets); and unauthorized polygamy/sexual pecadilloes were a Big Deal regardless of the races of the parties involved. So I suspect it’s overly simplistic to attribute his excommunication/exile to simple prejudice against “miscegenation”.

    Turner (and, to some degree, Givens in his biography of Pratt) also brings out the headaches that the Church was going through due to the activities of a number of pretenders to Joseph Smith’s role; and given that McCary apparently went to Cincinnati and made sixty converts in two months, I wonder whether Young wasn’t anxious to seize upon any excuse to de-legitimation McCary’s claims by any means possible.

  2. McCary was a colorful character, I don’t deny that Brigham certainly attacked anyone who claimed leadership of the LDS church. I don’t deny those things as playing a role in Brigham’s decision, but I believe McCary’s polygamy in winter quarters was a huge issue that would have De- legitimized McCary in everyone’s eyes before he started drawing converts in Cincinnati.

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