As Romney left Utah and moved to Massachusetts, a debate raged in Mormon intellectual circles between those who accepted the ban as doctrine and those who considered it a temporal policy. Progressives argued that the ban’s origins lay in pioneers seeking to appease anti-abolitionists as they passed through Missouri.
In 1973, Lester E. Bush, an amateur Mormon historian, made a strong case that no church president had ever received a revelation instituting the ban and thus no revelation was required to lift it. The next year, in the face of a potential NAACP lawsuit, the hierarchy quietly reversed another policy against performing baptisms of the dead and allowed other sacred rites “for people who had any Negro blood in their veins.” But the major issue was still the priesthood.
“There were internal conversations at the highest levels,” said Philip Barlow, a professor of Mormon history and religion.
Romney remained disengaged with the issue. “I don’t remember conversing with him about it,” said Barlow, who served as a counselor to Romney in the Boston church. Romney “was a very practical leader, not a theologian, not a historian, not a scholar but a business genius.”
In June 1978, Church President Spencer W. Kimball announced that God has “heard our prayers, and by revelation has confirmed that the long-promised day has come” in which “all worthy male members of the Church may be ordained to the priesthood without regard for race or color.”
The lifting of the ban, which, like the church’s anti-polygamy Manifesto, is now part of church scripture, was an indelible moment that many Mormons consider the most emotional in their lives. Romney has said he pulled his car over to the side of the road to weep with joy upon learning of the lifting of the ban. “Even at this day it’s emotional,” he said in 2007 on “Meet the Press.”
Only five months after his revelation, Kimball dedicated a flagship temple in Brazil, a key gateway for expansion for a growing church. Soon after, the church sought to cleanse the aura of racism from church textbooks and, in 1981, even from a scriptural passage, in which a righteous tribe is described as “pure” rather than “white.”
More than three decades later, the church says it still doesn’t know where the ban came from.
“Though the origins of the priesthood restriction are unclear, it was understood that a change would require revelation,” said church spokesman Michael Purdy, who called the lifting of the ban “a day of great rejoicing” that led to “robust growth in Africa and racially diverse areas of the United States and Latin America.”
But the church will not say whether the revelation was necessary to lift the ban or to give the policy reversal the force of absolute authority.
What is clear is that the consequences of the ban are still rippling.
“When I did my mission in Atlanta, there were still some people who are hurt, people wouldn’t join because of it. They feel that it wasn’t based on revelation, that it was purely discrimination,” Barima Kwarteng, 24, a computer engineering major from Ghana, said as he carried books into the BYU library. “Some people were like, ‘Why are you a part of this church?’ ”
Nearby, in the Wilkinson Center, students attended a ’70s dance in honor of Black History Month. They dressed in funky outfits and listened to a DJ playing “Brick House” under a slideshow featuring a dunking Dr. J, the cast of “Diff’rent Strokes” and a box of Count Chocula cereal.
Ashley Wright, 19, a business management major, attended the party with an Asian American friend wearing an Afro wig.
“Growing up, I always thought it was a long time ago,” Wright, who is white, said of the ban. “I thought that was forever ago. But then I was like, ‘my parents were alive then.’ ”
Navirlene Volcy, a 19-year-old African American student majoring in neuroscience, spent the evening dancing in a circle with friends — some black, some not.
To her, the ban was a recent revelation.
“It kind of surprised me,” said Volcy. “There’s a class here where they talk about Brigham Young having feelings that colored people were inferior. How can you be a prophet and commune with God and think that?”
She said she’d like to know what Romney thought about the church’s complicated racial past, but she added: “I’m not sure it would make a difference. It hasn’t made me leave the church. People are imperfect.”