Multiracial choirs accented in blue, purple, green, maroon and orange — swaying in unison in front of the massive organ pipes — rocked a packed LDS Conference Center in downtown Salt Lake City on Friday night in an animated gala celebrating the 40th anniversary of the end of the Mormon church’s centurylong ban on blacks holding the priesthood and entering its temples.
Latter-day Saints from various African nations as well as Brazil, Haiti, Jamaica and other countries, told of their pioneering paths, stories often punctuated by wild applause from the audience, including multiple standing ovations.
The evening opened with a short speech by Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the governing First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, in which he extolled the June, 8, 1978, announcement of the “revelation” opening the Mormon priesthood “to all worthy males” and condemned continued racist attitudes.
“Changes in the hearts and practices of individual members did not come suddenly and universally. Some accepted the effects of the revelation immediately and gracefully,” Oaks said. “Some accepted gradually. But some, in their personal lives, continued the attitudes of racism that have been painful to so many throughout the world, including the past 40 years.”
The Mormon leader urged members to concentrate their attention “on the glorious post-1978 effects of that revelation in blessing the children of God all over the world,” giving a special shoutout to “our marvelous members of African descent, especially our African-American members, who have persisted in faith and faithfulness through a difficult transition period of fading prejudice.”
Then began a riveting narrative of not-often-told moments in Mormon history, narrated by members of African descent.
It started with a joyous family circle in Africa, singing and dancing to the sound of drums. Then, suddenly, they are pulled apart, some staying symbolically on the continent, while others are yanked away in an allusion to slavery.
LDS Church founder Joseph Smith’s “first vision” as a young boy began the reuniting of families, intoned the narrators.
They mentioned the pioneering black convert Jane Manning James, who joined in the faith’s early days but was never allowed in the temple. They also featured Elijah Able, a black man who was ordained to the LDS priesthood and served three missions for the church, but was also not admitted to temple rituals. Both remained faithful Mormons to the end of their days.
The extended Bonner clan, all dressed in white, mesmerized the crowd with a medley of LDS children’s Primary songs about families and love.
Gladys Knight brought down the house with her rendition of “Somewhere” from “West Side Story,” each line — “we’ll find a new way of living, we’ll find a way of forgiving” — fraught with meaning for the performers and the multiracial Mormon audience.
The famed musician and LDS convert then led the choirs and audience in singing, “Love One Another.”
In his closing remarks, LDS Church President Russell M. Nelson first quipped that he wished for an encore, then ended the evening with a call for unity in diversity.
“Differences in culture, language, gender, race and nationality fade into insignificance as the faithful enter the covenant path and come unto our beloved Redeemer,” Nelson said. “Ultimately, we realize that only the comprehension of the true Fatherhood of God can bring full appreciation of the true brotherhood of men and the true sisterhood of women.”
Such understanding, he said, “inspires us with passionate desire to build bridges of cooperation instead of walls of segregation.”
Nelson finished his comments “in the name of Jesus Christ.” The audience said, “Amen.” And then burst into applause.