The No Vote

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey.

Ordinarily, I skim really quickly over General Conference talks that aren’t really talks: financial reports, statistical reports, and the sustaining of church officers. But the sustaining of church officers for October 1977 caught my eye for this reason:

President Tanner: It seems, President Kimball, that the voting has been unanimous in favor of these officers and General Authorities, and we would ask those new members of the First Quorum of the Seventy to take their seats with their brethren, please.
Voice from the gallery: President Tanner? President Tanner?
President Tanner: Yes?
Voice from the gallery: Did you note my negative vote?
President Tanner: No. Let me see it.
Voice from the gallery: Up here.

So, a couple of things come to mind.

First, this was long, long before the new Conference Center. The Salt Lake Tabernacle was a lot smaller; it had overall capacity for 7,000 people compared to the 21,000 that fit in the new conference center. This kind of one-on-one exchange really wouldn’t be possible in the Conference Center.

Second, I had to Google around to find out what the concern was. I found an article from LDS Living that mentioned the event, stating:

The voice from the gallery belonged to Byron Marchant. He objected over the Church’s stance at the time of not sustaining those of African descent to the priesthood.

President Tanner addressed the event in the next General Conference (April 1978), saying:

During the last conference we had one dissenting vote, and there was some misunderstanding about it. Someone said that I treated him very curtly. I would just like to explain just what takes place if anyone or a number of people have a dissenting vote. We give them the opportunity to go to one of the General Authorities to explain to that General Authority why they feel the person is not qualified, and if he’s found not qualified, then we take the necessary action.

That April 1978 General Conference was the last General Conference prior to the 1978 Revelation that opened the priesthood to all faithful Mormon men, regardless of race. I don’t know much about what happened to Marchant after this, other than that he was excommunicated shortly afterwards.

The exact history of the Church’s policy of barring Africans from the priesthood and the revelation that ended the policy are complicated and controversial topics, and I’m not an expert. It strikes me as very sad that Marchant—and another man, Douglas Wallace (mentioned in the same article above)—were both excommunicated less than a year before the policy they protested was overturned.1 The Church hasn’t had too much to say about these things, other than the very-important Race and the Priesthood essay published a couple of years ago on that stated the racial priesthood ban had no known revelatory origin but stopped short of outright calling it a mistake.2

I’ve been keeping a pretty close eye on the talks as we get closer and closer to the October 1978 General Conference (the 1978 Revelation dates to September). I’m surprised that the topic has received almost zero official attention. There are a couple of implications here and there, but overall it’s basically completely absent. So a couple of further thoughts.

I don’t think there’s much basis to the complaint that—as opposed to in 1978—contemporary dissenters are directed to their stake presidents instead of general authorities. For one thing, there are more dissenters, in part because of organized attempts to acquire tickets to General Conference for the sole purpose of protesting. As the Church grows, this kind of thing is going to be pushed farther and farther away from the upper leaders. That’s unfortunate, but it’s hardly unprecedented. Moses learned that lesson the hard way.

I also don’t think there’s much comparison at all between the state of the priesthood ban in 1977 and the Church’s position on same sex marriage in 2017. The Church has communicated again and again and again that it’s position on the definition of marriage will not ever change. It’s been saying that a lot in recent years, but frankly it’s been saying the same thing—explicitly and repeatedly—all the way back to 1974 (the earliest General Conferences I started reading.) For the Church to change now would be to contradict decades and decades of loud, clear, authoritative teachings. The chances of this happening are essentially nil, and the effect if it did would be seismic (to say the least). In contrast—as I mentioned—I can’t find a single General Conference talk that defends the racial priesthood ban.

The contrast could not be starker. The racial priesthood ban wasn’t defended a single time in General Conference (at least, not in the years leading up to 1978). The Church’s position on marriage has been defended in every General Conference that I’ve read (from 1974 to 1977) and every General Conference that I can remember (over the last few years).

The hope some have that this policy is about to be changed does not appear to be grounded in any of the available evidence.

Check out the other posts from the General Conference Odyssey this week and join our Facebook group to follow along!