Historian who traced racist LDS priesthood/temple ban to Brigham Young dies

Nov. 22, 1942 — Nov. 23, 2023: Lester Bush was “shunned” by fellow Latter-day Saints after publishing a landmark article that helped shape the path of the global church.

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.”

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Darius Gray, Genesis Group president from 1997 to 2003, speaks at the 50th anniversary of the Genesis Group in the Tabernacle on Salt Lake City's Temple Square in 2021. Gray says scholar Lester Bush “should long be remembered and appreciated" for his work that helped lead to the lifting of the priesthood/temple ban.

‘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.

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) The Bonner family performs in the Conference Center at an event June 1, 2018, celebrating the 40th anniversary of the end of the priesthood/temple ban.

Beyond racial issues

Throughout the 1970s and ‘80s, Bush also published “foundational works,” Petrey said, on the Utah-based faith’s Word of Wisdom health code, medicine and birth control.

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.”

(Tanner Humanities Center, University of Utah via YouTube) Physician and historian Lester Bush gives a lecture at the University of Utah in 2015. He has died at age 81.

More recently, Bush and Prince teamed up to examine how the increasingly advanced ages of Latter-day Saint apostles and prophets impact their ability to fulfill their duties.

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.