Looking Back: Reflections on Announcement of Revelation on the Priesthood

Contributed By Gerry Avant, senior contributing editor

  • 1 June 2018

After a dedicatory session of the Johannesburg South Africa Temple in August of 1985, Jennifer Tonkin, left, joyfully greets Lydia and Isaac Mbele. Sister Tonkin was instrumental in Brother and Sister Mbele's conversion to the gospel. Photo by Gerry Avant.

On June 9, 1978, the First Presidency announced that a revelation had been received by President Spencer W. Kimball extending priesthood and temple blessings to all worthy male members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The announcement was made on Friday morning; the Church News had already gone to press so we didn’t get to write about this momentous event until the issue for the week ending June 17. We placed calls to leaders and members in many states and abroad to compile reports for that issue.

I called Frank and Arline Talley, who then lived in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Sister Talley said that, upon hearing the news, she telephoned Alexandre Mourra in Haiti. Brother Mourra’s response was a joyful exclamation: “Glory to God!” His next comment was, “I can’t believe it. Is it really true?” He told her that he had more than 21 friends of African descent who were ready to join the Church. “How soon can someone come over to baptize them?” he asked.

Victor Nugent, a faithful Jamaican member, said, “I never thought I would see the day. Does this mean that I can take my family to the temple?”

On Sunday, June 4, José Ramon Diaz, a member for more than 20 years, bore his testimony in the San Juan Branch. He said, “I have waited years for the priesthood, and I will wait forever if I have to.”

On Friday, June 9, Fela Ramirez, an LDS friend, ran out of her house to tell him the news she had just heard on the radio. “I could not believe it,” he said. “My knees almost gave way.”

On Sunday, June 11, Brother Diaz was in the hallway of the meetinghouse waiting to be interviewed before his ordination as an elder. A member passing by said, “They’re keeping you waiting.”

He replied, “I don’t care. I’ve waited 20 years; what’s 20 minutes more?”

Sister Talley said that the chapel in the San Juan Branch was filled to capacity that Sunday. “Everyone was weeping. Everyone was hugging each other. It was a thrilling thing to see. We were all so happy.”

On December 5, the Church News staff met with President Spencer W. Kimball to talk about events that had transpired during the year. Our article was published in the issue of January 6, 1979.

Answering a question about the circumstances under which the revelation was given, President Kimball said:

“I went to the temple alone, and especially on Sundays and Saturdays when there were not organizations in the temple, when I could have it alone. It went on for some time as I was searching for this, because I wanted to be sure. We held a meeting of the Council of the Twelve in the temple on the regular day. We considered this very seriously and thoughtfully and prayerfully.

“I asked the Twelve not to go home when the time came. I said, ‘Now would you be willing to remain in the temple with us?’ And they were. I offered the final prayer and I told the Lord if it wasn’t right, if He didn’t want this change to come in the Church that I would be true to it all the rest of my life, and I’d fight the world against it if that’s what He wanted.

“We had this special prayer circle, then I knew that the time had come. I had a great deal to fight, of course, myself largely, because I had grown up with this thought that Negroes should not have the priesthood and I was prepared to go all the rest of my life till my death and fight for it and defend it as it was. But this revelation and assurance came to me so clearly that there was no question about it.”

The dedication of the Johannesburg South Africa Temple, August 24–25, 1985, was one of many occasions I’ve witnessed on how the revelation has blessed lives. The country had been embroiled in riots over the issue of apartheid. Because of the revelation on the priesthood, this scene unfolded at the dedication: Afrikaners and Zulus embraced each other. The accents of members of British, Dutch, German, Portuguese, Irish, and Indian ancestry mingled with those who spoke Zulu, Xhosa, Sotho, and other African languages. The gathering on the 1.5-acre temple site bore no evidence of the turmoil and strife occurring in other areas of the country. Whites, blacks, those of mixed-race ancestry, and Indians stood in line together, transcending ethnic and language barriers. In the temple, they sat side by side.

After one of the sessions, I snapped photos of Lydia and Isaac Mbele, a mixed-race couple, and then noticed a white woman, Jennifer Tonkin, approaching them. When they met, the two women joyfully embraced. Sister Tonkin had been instrumental in the conversion of Brother and Sister Mbele four years earlier. The picture I captured that day is, to me, a visual testimony of the blessings that came with that revelation in 1978.