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Did Pres. McKay Try to Rescind Ban in 1955?

We’re continuing our conversation with Dr. Matt Harris.  In our next episode, we’ll talk about the temple and priesthood ban in the 1950s.  Did you know that McKay considered lifting the ban as early as 1955?

Matt:  It’s not surprising that when McKay came back from South Africa and convenes this committee with Elders [Adam] Bennion and Kimball, I’m not sure who else is on the committee, but I know it’s those two.  They ask Lowell Bennion to do some research for them, and he produces a position paper, and he says there is no scriptural justification for any of this stuff.  So, Elder Bennion writes his report to President McKay and tells him that there is no scriptural justification for the priesthood ban.  This is 1954 I should say.

So, President McKay contemplates lifting the ban, but he recognizes that it will cause hardship among the saints in the South.  Keep in mind this is still segregated America.  So, if he lifts this ban, it is going to create hardships among Latter-day Saints in the South.  Also, there are some folks in the Quorum of Twelve who wouldn’t support the lifting of the ban:  Joseph Fielding Smith would be one of them.

We will talk about a pretty significant change from a doctrine in 1949 to a policy in 1955.

This is interesting because President McKay, as a counselor to George Albert Smith had signed that 1949 First Presidency statement that you referenced a minute ago….

GT:  Right.

Matt:  …as a counselor.

GT:  Now let’s talk about that ’49 statement.

Matt:  Yes, we can.  So, as the church president, he signed that statement, and we can go into detail in a minute, but that statement makes it pretty clear that this is the doctrine of the church.

GT:  And it uses the word “doctrine.”

Matt:  It uses the word doctrine.

GT:  That is an important word.

Matt:  Right.  J. Reuben Clark writes the statement, and President McKay signs off on it. George Albert Smith is feeble by this point, and he is going to die a couple of years later, but anyway, President McKay, even though he signs that ’49 statement, now he is the church president and he feels the weight of this policy on his own.

President McKay considered lifting the ban in 1955 but was worried about reaction in the South.
President McKay considered lifting the ban in 1955 but was worried about reaction in the South.

 

Check out our conversation…..  Don’t forget to check out parts 1 (about Brazil & South Africa) and 2 (the one-drop rule) of this conversation!

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Where, When, & Why Did the One-Drop Rule Originate?

In our next conversation, we’re going to talk to Dr. Matt Harris of Colorado State University-Pueblo.  We will talk about the “one-drop rule.”  How is it that Mormons determined blackness, especially if they were biracial families? We’ll also talk about a Supreme Court decision in the 1960s that legalized interracial marriage.

Matt:  What is interesting about this is that depending on the state, these laws are very fluid in the early 20th century.  I tell my students, we teach civil rights and we talk about this.  In fact, we discuss the book Loving vs. Virginia, which is the Supreme Court case that strikes down these miscegenation laws, declares them unconstitutional.  This is 1967.

But anyway, what’s interesting is that in the early 20th century these miscegenation laws are very fluid.  One state might say it’s one-quarter.  Another state might say it’s one-eighth, or one-sixteenth.  I joke with my students sometimes that on Monday, a black man can marry a white woman because they fit within the parameters of the law, but then they change the law on Wednesday and now it’s no longer constitutional.

Don’t forget to check out our previous conversation with Matt, and you might want to check out our interview with Dr. Paul Reeve, where we talk about where Woodruff incorrectly quotes Brigham Young referring to anyone with “one-drop” of African blood not being eligible for the priesthood.  (The quote is NOT accurate.)  Check out our conversation…..

How do you determine blackness? Is one-drop enough?
How do you determine blackness? Is one-drop enough?

 

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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?