He was never a household name, but his research on one of the most flammable issues ever to arise in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints helped alter the course of the global faith.
Historian Lester Bush, who played a major role in ending the priesthood/temple prohibition for Black Latter-day Saints, died Nov. 23, the day after his 81st birthday, of complications related to Alzheimer’s.
A physician by training, Bush was the first to demonstrate that church founder Joseph Smith did not institute the racist policy that, among other things, prevented Black Latter-day Saints from priesthood ordinations and temple ordinances. Rather, the policy took shape under Smith’s successors, particularly Brigham Young and John Taylor.
Bush published his landmark findings in 1973 in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought. Five years later, then-church President Spencer W. Kimball reversed the ban. Kimball’s diaries and his son later would confirm Bush’s essay had impacted the church leader’s thinking on the subject.
Critically, Bush’s scholarship helped “pave the way for seeing Latter-day Saint teachings on race as mutable and historically contingent rather than a divine mandate,” Taylor Petrey, the current editor of Dialogue, said Monday. In doing so, the article, which still ranks as one of the most important works of scholarship in the faith’s history, served to “justify the church’s abandonment of its racist practices on priesthood and temple restrictions.”
Darius Gray, co-founder of the Genesis Group, a grassroots organization for Black Latter-day Saints created before Kimball’s announcement, said Monday that Bush “should long be remembered and appreciated.”
“No other single individual had a greater effect,” Gray said, “on addressing the past policy of restricting those of African descent from the priesthood and temple attendance.”
‘He was elated’
Latter-day Saint historian and scientist Greg Prince, whose close friendship with Bush spanned nearly a half-century, described Bush as “one of the most intelligent people I have ever known.”
Prince was present with Bush the night the ban was lifted and remembers the never-ending calls his friend received in celebration.
“He was elated that it had happened,” Prince said. “He didn’t try to make any claims that he was part of it. He was not that type of person. People just knew it.”
Nonetheless, Prince said Bush’s work earned him icy shoulders from fellow Latter-day Saints, as well as the suspicion of powerful church leaders.
“His reward was that he was shunned,” Prince said. “It was just tragic.”
Forty years later, in 2013, Bush’s main arguments appeared in the church’s official “Race and the Priesthood” Gospel Topics essay, although it gave no citation to Bush.
Beyond racial issues
Historian of Mormonism and reproduction Amanda Hendrix-Komoto emphasized that Bush’s work on birth control has been “largely forgotten” because the topic is seen by some as controversial.
“It should have a much bigger impact,” she said, “but people have been afraid or reluctant to talk about sex, reproduction and birth control in relation to Mormonism.”
Hendrix-Komoto said she hopes one day to push that particular “conversation forward” but that she has yet to “write anything that Lester didn’t say decades ago.”
Born in Atlanta on Nov. 22, 1942, Bush obtained his medical degree from the University of Virginia before going to work for the Navy and later the CIA.
He and his wife, Yvonne, married in 1967. Together they had three children.