Right after the Mormon church gave blacks the priesthood, a polygamous offshoot saw its ranks grow

(Tribune file photo) Owen Allred, then leader of the Apostolic United Brethren, in 1988.

A recent blog about happenings in the polygamous Apostolic United Brethren church posed a question:

“If you find out from your DNA test that you have a percentage of Nigerian DNA, would you be worried about your right to the Priesthood and all of its blessings?”

For some respondents, the answer was yes.

“I would acknowledge that I don’t have authority, that my children don’t,” a commenter replied, “and I’d separate myself from my white spouse so as to not condemn her.”

Next month, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Salt Lake City-based faith lifting its ban on black men and boys holding the priesthood and black women and girls entering LDS temples.

Making males of all races eligible for the priesthood, which Mormons believe to be the authority to act in God’s name for the salvation of humanity, is considered a monumental pivot point in LDS history, making the religion more inclusive and acceptable in America and spurring its growth in Africa, Brazil and other parts of the world.

While the vast majority of mainstream Mormons embraced, applauded and even rejoiced at news of the priesthood change, the reaction was much different in the Apostolic United Brethren, a polygamous religious community that, in 1978, was still known to most Utahns as the Allred Group and nowadays makes headlines as the church where the Brown family of TV’s "Sister Wives” fame worships.

“I burst into tears,” said Peggy Lynch, a member of the AUB. “We were so sad because we loved the [LDS] Church. We believed the church had priesthood, and they just gave it away.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Peggy Lynch in Pinesdale, Mont., in 2017.

Those already practicing so-called Mormon fundamentalism weren’t the only ones upset. Researchers and people who belonged to the AUB in 1978 say the group saw its membership jump after the LDS Church ended the priesthood prohibition. The converts were LDS families who believed blacks should not get the priesthood.

Within a few years, the AUB opened its own temple and offered ordinances to its members. The AUB has never followed the LDS Church in allowing blacks to hold the priesthood.

Parallel tracks

These fundamentalists follow what they regard as the original teachings of Mormon founder Joseph Smith and the pioneer-prophet who succeeded him, Brigham Young. Fundamentalist groups began to emerge after the LDS Church officially gave up polygamy in 1890. Today, the LDS Church excommunicates any members found practicing it.

But these fundamentalists believe in more than plural marriage. Their attitudes toward whether blacks can enter the priesthood, for instance, can be traced to the Bible story of Cain and Abel. Mormon folklore holds that the mark, or curse, God placed upon Cain was black skin.

“That curse will remain upon them,” Young is quoted in the “Journal of Discourses” as saying on Oct. 9, 1859, in Salt Lake City’s renowned Mormon Tabernacle, “and they never can hold the Priesthood or share in it until all the other descendants of Adam have received the promises and enjoyed the blessings of the Priesthood and the keys thereof.”

The LDS Church has disavowed such teachings, stating that they never were doctrine, and notes that Mormon leaders today “unequivocally condemn all racism, past and present, in any form.”

But some of the faith’s splinter groups still abide by Brother Brigham’s words.

Rulon C. Allred, for one, founded what became the AUB in the 1950s. For Latter-day Saints who wanted to try fundamentalism, moving to the AUB was an easier transition than to other such groups.

While other fundamentalists distanced themselves from the LDS Church, the AUB saw itself in parallel with the larger faith. Allred even encouraged some of those who worshipped with him to maintain their standing in the LDS Church and to receive ordinances in Mormon temples. He didn’t see the need for the AUB to have its own temples or ordinance ceremonies, save for plural marriages.

To this day, AUB followers such as Lynch refer to the LDS Church as “the church.”

Allred was murdered in 1977. His brother Owen Allred became the new leader of the AUB, which is believed to have had as many as 5,000 members at the time.

But many of the AUB’s fond feelings for the LDS Church soured in June 1978, when the latter announced that then-church President Spencer W. Kimball had received a “revelation” ending the priesthood and temple ban.

Conversions follow

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Mormon artwork in the AUB chapel in Pinesdale, Mont.

Lynch had converted to the AUB years earlier, married one of Rulon Allred’s sons and moved to what is now Pinesdale, Mont. When she heard about the priesthood change, she phoned her mother, who was still a Latter-day Saint.

“I remember calling my mom and saying, ‘This is awful,’” Lynch recalled in an interview. “I was shocked when she said, ‘Isn’t this wonderful?’”

Owen Allred expressed his disappointment days after the LDS Church announcement during a sacrament service in Bluffdale. A transcript makes clear he regarded Kimball’s action as caving to political pressure rather than a revelation from God.

Allred wondered aloud whether the LDS Church soon would endorse abortion and grant the priesthood to women, too.

He advised his followers to stop participating in the LDS Church and cease entering its temples.

“Do not go into a temple,” he preached, “that has been defiled by the Canaanite being invited into it.”

Allred made his opposition more public July 23, 1978, in a full-page ad in The Salt Lake Tribune. The ad quoted Young’s statements on race and accused the LDS Church of giving away the priesthood and shunning its teachings.

The last two sentences read:

“Will Latter-day Saints remain true to their former revelations, or will they yield to the pressures of this crucial day?

“Where do you stand?”

Craig L. Foster, a co-editor of the three-volume “Persistence of Polygamy,” said the ad appeared to be intended as a rebuke. If it led to some mainstream Mormons jumping to the AUB, “then so much the better.”

Another co-editor, Brian Hales, a historian who has written books about fundamentalism, has reported that “hundreds” of LDS families converted to the AUB after Kimball’s priesthood expansion.

In an interview, Hales said AUB leadership relayed that information to him; he did not have actual statistics.

An AUB spokesman did not return messages seeking comment for this story.

John Llewellyn, a former Salt Lake County sheriff’s detective who oversaw complaints about polygamists and joined the AUB a few years after 1978, estimates the priesthood change prompted “dozens” of LDS families to convert but not hundreds.

Most of those families already had been curious about fundamentalism and completed their conversions because they didn’t think blacks should hold the priesthood, Llewellyn said. But a few AUB members sought out LDS men they already knew and thought would be agreeable to the AUB’s stance on the priesthood.

“They used it as a recruiting tool,” said Llewellyn, who left the AUB a few years after joining.

Whether hundreds of families or dozens defected to the AUB, either amount would have been insignificant to the global LDS Church but a boon to the AUB. By 2000, according to Hales’ research, the AUB was up to 6,000 members. By comparison, the mainstream Mormon church counts more than 16 million members today.

Still waiting for a revelation

Owen Allred sits in the Juab County courtroom listening to the proceedings. photo: fraughton 11/19/02

With LDS temples now, in Owen Allred’s view, defiled, AUB leaders decided they needed to preserve the ordinances performed there.

They built an “endowment house” in Bluffdale in the 1980s, and, in the ’90s, a temple in Ozumba, Mexico.

Owen Allred died in 2005. The current AUB leader is Lynn Thompson.

Foster said AUB members have told him that blacks would be welcome in their church. Opposition to them holding the priesthood is based on scripture, he said, and not on a belief that they are intellectually, physically or culturally inferior.

“I really have not seen any indication of racism,” Foster said. “I really haven’t.”

Lynch, who runs the blog in which she posted the DNA question, said AUB “old-timers” like her still believe blacks should not hold the priesthood, though she points out that younger generations are more flexible.

She believes in treating blacks equally in secular life and hopes for the day when they do receive the priesthood. But that permission must come directly from God, a revelation she and other fundamentalists believe Kimball never received.

Said Lynch: “I do not believe myself any more of a racist than God.”