Brazil was a particularly difficult place to determine ancestry as slavery was legal until 1888, and more than three million African slaves had been brought in as workers. Interracial marriage was widespread, segregation illegal, and prejudice unacceptable. Church leaders attempted to screen prospective converts to eliminate mixed-blood members, inconsistently administering awkward policies. When a Brazilian temple was announced in 1975, the Church was on a collision course. Some of the most faithful and best-educated members in Brazil, people who contributed money to build the temple and send others on missions, could not hold the priesthood. On June 9, 1978, Church President Spencer W. Kimball announced a revelation reversing the policy and extending the priesthood to all worthy males, including those of African descent. The full text of the letter to all priesthood officers of the Church worldwide follows:
As we have witnessed the expansion of the work of the Lord over the earth, we have been grateful that people of many nations have responded to the message of the restored gospel, and have joined the Church in ever increasing numbers. This, in turn, has inspired us with a desire to extend to every worthy member of the Church all of the privileges and blessings which the gospel affords.
Aware of the promises made by the prophets and presidents of the Church who have preceded us that at some time, in God's eternal plan, all of our brethren who are worthy may receive the priesthood, and witnessing the faithfulness of those from whom the priesthood has been withheld, we have pleaded long and earnestly in behalf of these, our faithful brethren, spending many hours in the Upper Room of the Temple supplicating the Lord for divine guidance.
He has heard our prayers, and by revelation has confirmed that the long-promised day has come when every faithful, worthy man in the Church may receive the holy priesthood, with power to exercise its divine authority, and enjoy with his loved ones every blessing that flows therefrom, including the blessings of the temple. Accordingly, all worthy male members of the Church may be ordained to the priesthood without regard for race or color. Priesthood leaders are instructed to follow the policy of carefully interviewing all candidates for ordination to either the Aaronic or the Melchizedek Priesthood to insure that they meet the established standards for worthiness.
We declare with soberness that 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.
The declaration was signed by President Spencer W. Kimball and the First Presidency.
Gilmore Chappell, a black American working in Holland, had been a member for six months when he heard the news. Chappell, overcome, went out to sit in his car, laughing and crying. "Then I went back into priesthood [meeting] and they welcomed me in with open arms." Mary Frances Sturlaugson, who joined the Church while attending college, was living in Provo. A former bishop told her that her people had been given the priesthood. She walked outside, "crying like a happy kid at Christmastime." Horns were honking. She stopped for a red light and a car pulled up. The driver asked if she had heard the news. As she half mumbled and half nodded a disbelieving yes, he whooped and blew his horn. At her apartment, her roommates ran to meet her, jumping up and down screaming with joy. Each said a prayer, "sobs punctuating every one." Within a month, she had submitted her paperwork for a mission.
Leonard Arrington, Church Historian at the time, pieced together an account of how the revelation came. In 1976, two years prior to the announcement, President Kimball had begun to pray, fast, and supplicate God to rescind the exclusion of blacks from the priesthood. Kimball inten sified his efforts in April 1978, going every day to a special room in the temple. On June 1, according to Arrington's account, Kimball invited the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve to stay beyond their regular meeting. Those present shared a profound spiritual experience and the mutual awareness that a new doctrine had been revealed to them. Kimball's queries, said Arrington, pointed to three tensions between doctrine and practice. First, the traditional notion that the gospel be preached to every nation and people was prevented by the exclusion. Second, the scriptural emphasis on the worth of all souls made the exclusionary practice seem unjustified. Statements supporting equal opportunities seemed incongruous with the denial. Third, Church members understood that someday the priesthood would be available to all worthy males. When would those promises be fulfilled? The new revelation brought teachings and practice into line. Because the change came by revelation, it was quick and absolute. Like the fifteenth amendment to the U.S. Constitution granting black men the franchise, this document gave no concessions to women.
Armand Mauss noted that the revelation changed only a policy and did not address any doctrine. Not surprisingly, the policy was reversed well after the Civil Rights Movement had waned. Public pressure had subsided, and people had given up on the Mormons ever entering the modern world.
One fruit of the revelation was the LDS congregation on 129th Street in New York's Harlem. A large sign on the small building proclaimed "The Church of JESUS CHRIST of Latter-day Saints." In 2001, the congregation numbered about sixty, with members from Puerto Rico, the Caribbean, African nations, Harlem residents, and some Caucasian Mormons from the western United States. The numbers doubled in four years, straining the facilities. The Church dedicated a much larger building around the corner on Lenox Avenue in 2005.
Harlem members joined for various reasons. Agnes Martinez was attracted by the "families are forever" motto on television. She enjoyed the temple and was sorry to "come back to what we really live in." Gloria Lynch, a social worker born in Harlem, was baptized after a lifelong search for the "right faith." She had grown up Catholic and practiced Islam and Christian Science before becoming a Mormon. Ralph Acosta admitted that he was attracted to a lady who came by and invited him to come to the Church. He became a strong member.