First General Conference speech by an African American general authority thrills black Latter-day Saints

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Peter M. Johnson, general authority Seventy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, speaks to the congregation of the 189th Semiannual General Conference in Salt Lake City on Sunday, Oct. 6, 2019.

Jerri Harwell was listening to Sunday’s final session of General Conference when suddenly she stopped packing for an upcoming move and turned her head to see who was at the pulpit.

“That,” thought the Salt Lake City author and college professor for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, "doesn’t sound like a typical general authority.”

There, on the screen, was Elder Peter M. Johnson warning of the dangers of the devil and encouraging church members to read and study the faith’s signature scripture, the Book of Mormon, "every day, every day, every day.”

At that moment, Harwell — and other Latter-day Saints in Utah and around the world — witnessed church history. It was the first time a General Conference sermon was delivered by a black man born in the United States.

While there have been other black general authorities, Johnson is the first African American to be named to such a lofty position. Six months after being called to the Seventy — and with little fanfare — the 52-year-old New York native became the first to speak at a modern-day semiannual gathering.

“Hallelujah,” Harwell rejoiced. “My very first thought, was: It only took 41 years. It’s about damn time.”

Harwell was, of course, referring to June 8, 1978, decree that ended the LDS Church’s more than centurylong ban on black men and boys being ordained to the all-male priesthood and on black women being allowed in Latter-day Saint temples.

Asians, Pacific Islanders and Hispanics have been called to be general authorities and given conference speeches. But not until this year has there been an African American doing so. “We are the last to get called as a general authority,” she said, "even though we have been in the church since the beginning. And I can’t help but wonder why?”

Still, the occasion was one of joy and gratitude, Harwell said, saying Johnson’s sermon is a sign “that things are coming along and the church is making progress.”

Johnson, a former Muslim, attended Brigham Young University-Hawaii on a basketball scholarship and eventually joined the Utah-based faith.

He received bachelor’s and master’s degrees in accounting from Southern Utah University and a doctorate in accounting from Arizona State University. He has worked as an associate professor of accounting at both BYU-Hawaii and BYU in Provo.

After Johnson’s Sunday sermon, many Latter-day Saints turned to social media to celebrate the milestone.

“Y’all I’m really crying in hearing Elder Johnson speak,” wrote one woman on Twitter. “Such an intimate moment and prayer answered. This is our church too.”

“Still not quite over Elder Johnson’s talk. It was perfect — the delivery, the message, and the history making moment,” wrote another commenter. “Black American saints are inspired and rejoicing.”

Said another: “I would like to listen to Elder Johnson speak every day, every day, every day,. That talk was so moving to me.”

Darius Gray has known — and admired — Johnson for many years. “When I heard he was going to speak, I was visiting with other saints in their home and I said, 'Watch this. You are going to see history."

Gray, co-founder of the Genesis Group for black Latter-day Saints, said Johnson’s sermon was “overdue” and a sign that the church "is moving forward at a human pace.”

“It’s not always the speed that God might wish," he added, "but at a speed that makes mankind — and leadership — comfortable.”

Gray also hoped that Johnson’s faith would be what people remembered first, then his race.

“Peter represented himself well — not simply as an a man of color but as a Latter-day Saint," he said. “He should be seen first in that light and then in the uniqueness of his position.”