Among the first votes of dissent in the modern Mormon church occurred in 1977, in opposition to the church doctrine banning blacks from any priesthood ordination and temple endowment. A member voted opposed to sustaining church leadership in General Conference 1977 and was subsequently excommunicated. Then less than 1 year later the church downgraded the doctrine to a policy and reversed the policy in the 1978 announcement and Official Declaration 2.
Byron Marchant served as a Boy Scout leader through his local ward of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church). He emerged as a prominent dissenter who directly challenged the church’s stance on racial issues. In 1974, Marchant found himself at the center of controversy when the eligibility of African Americans for leadership roles in Mormon-sponsored Scout troops was questioned by the NAACP. Despite the resolution of this particular matter, Marchant continued to voice his opposition to the broader practice of denying the Mormon priesthood based on race.
Marchant became the Scoutmaster for Troop 58 in 1973. He grew the troop by inviting non-member youth in the area to join and eventually had African-American youth in his troop. He had some of them serving in scout leadership positions. In September 1973, scouting in the church was redesigned per “Correlation” whereby youth priesthood quorum leadership was to equate to scout troop leadership positions. This, in effect, barred the African American young men from holding any leadership positions because they were barred from the priesthood. Marchant challenged this policy expecting it was an oversight in the new policy but his reasoning fell on deaf ears. Upon learning of the potential trouble, the adult scouting leaders in the Stake (attorneys by profession) refused to speak out in defense of civil rights and civil decency.
He explains how it escalated: “In the Spring of 1974, after a rock-throwing fight during a Troop 58 hike (the troop had rapidly expanded over the Winter and about a dozen boys were on the hike, half of them deacons and half non-LDS), which had the deacons against the non-LDS boys, it was discovered that a deacon (the Senior Patrol Leader, who had read his leadership book) taunted one of the black troop members with the information about his being disqualified from troop leadership. With no support whatsoever from ward or stake priesthood leaders, I covertly (since I was the ward custodian) contacted Utah State Black Ombudsman, Don Cope, who got the support of Utah Governor Calvin Rampton, and a lawsuit was filed in about May 1974 by the NAACP Salt Lake Branch with the two black Scouts as plaintiffs. The LDS Presiding Bishop came to the ward, pissed as hell. My wife and I composed a letter to Spencer Kimball that night, and I called his office the next morning. His secretary demanded that I bring the letter to Kimball immediately (which I did). Kimball was gentle (the “good cop”), and his councilors were the “bad cops.” The letter confessed everything.”
Attempting to understand the Mormon church’s race policies is complex. There are easy-to-find unofficial statements from many church leaders and few yet hard-to-find official statements from the church. An authoritative official statement was fairly recent though, and from the First Presidency in 1969. It was even published in the New Improvement Era church magazine in 1970 entitled “Letter of First Presidency Clarifies Church’s Position of the Negro.” This letter restated the harder-to-find 1949 statement by the First Presidency on the position of the church regarding the race-based priesthood ban intended for private correspondence.
The letter states that the ban began with Joseph Smith. This is not true, however, as is easy enough to prove for those who study church history. A clear example of the contrary is the fact that Joseph Smith endorsed Elijah Abel to be ordained and receive the priesthood. Elijah Abel was of African descent. So, therefore, Joseph Smith did not start the priesthood ban, it lays squarely on Brigham Young. Brigham began this ban once the pioneers had already begun settling in Utah. He spoke to the Legislature in the newly formed Territory and Brigham Young announced this race-based priesthood ban in order to keep slaveholders happy. This is the point where the ban went into effect, it was not a revelation that put it into place, though church leaders expected a revelation to lift the ban.
The First Presidency of 1969 stated in their official letter that “from the beginning of this dispensation” it was taught that blacks couldn’t have the priesthood, but as is shown with this certificate, Joseph Smith did certify and ordained Elijah Able with the priesthood. Thus, the First Presidency statement of 1969 is simply not true. It theoretically could be considered a “soft” or accidental lie, if the church leaders were ignorant of these details. Either way, we can see that they are trying to tie the priesthood ban to Joseph Smith, but factually, it was due to Brigham Young. This falsehood in the 1969 statement was intolerable for Marchant, and he was determined to set things right, whatever the consequences.
Voting Opposed in October 1977
During the Mormon General Conference held in October 1977, Marchant expressed his dissent by casting a vote against the official endorsement of the church leadership under Spencer W Kimball. He was specifically voicing dissent for President Tanner in the first presidency as the sole surviving member of the 1969 First Presidency which had released the statement confirming the church policy on the priesthood ban. Byron understood that the leadership had lied (perhaps even unknowingly) in their statement and could not sustain them in good conscience as called by God. His motivation in opposing was not to detract from the church, but to defend Joseph Smith since their statement was incorrect. He expected the church to rectify its incorrect statements once the error was made known publicly. Again, in their statement, the First Presidency claimed that the priesthood ban began with Joseph Smith, but in reality, he had approved ordaining Elijah Abel, a black man so the ban could not have started with Joseph Smith.
All in favor, please manifest it. Contrary, if there be any, by the same sign.
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.
President Tanner: Oh, up there. I’m sorry, I couldn’t see up in that gallery. We’ll ask you to see Elder Hinckley immediately after this meeting.The Sustaining of Church Officers, October 1977
Byron Marchant cast the first vote in modern history against a leader of the church. During the conference and from the pulpit, Elder Tanner told him to meet with Elder Hinckley immediately after the conference, which he did. Byron Marchant met with Gordon Hinckley and also Harold Boyer, an LDS attorney, and explained the Elijah Abel story proves Joseph Smith didn’t start the priesthood ban as the First Presidency stated and urged them to remove the ban. The refusal of the church to listen to these facts shows that they were not accidentally mistaken, or at least were more interested in saving face than in being honest. Once they were corrected and shown they were in error, they didn’t change their statements or update their narrative, they punished the messenger. The church never recanted the official First Presidency statement, even though (spoiler alert) a year later they did acquiesce by removing the priesthood ban on blacks.
Excommunicated in October 1977
As a consequence of his behavior during the conference and his public opposition to Mormon racial practices, Marchant was subsequently tried and excommunicated from the LDS Church a few days later.
Church discipline courts are reportedly local matters and initiated by local leaders, but Marchant was immediately scheduled for a council. Marchant provided the priesthood license for Elijah Abel, signed by Joseph Smith, but the church leadership ignored this and went ahead with the trial. Leading the ex-communication trial was his local stake president, who was employed as a printer by the Newspaper Agency Corporation, a Salt Lake Tribune and Deseret News partnership, so he also worked for the Corporate church.
Marchant intended to record his disciplinary council but was denied. He wanted to make sure that there were no false stories spread about him, as most discipline councils and ex-communications are due to adultery or other sins. He was denied recording the trial and then was refused attendance in his own trial, even though this contradicts the church’s own procedures as dictated in the Doctrine & Covenants 102. As stated in D&C 102:18 “In all cases the accuser and the accused shall have a privilege of speaking for themselves before the council, after the evidences are heard and the councilors who are appointed to speak on the case have finished their remarks.”
Marchant was denied the right and privilege of speaking for himself when the presiding stake presidency specifically denied the expressed request, and none of the six counselors (those “individuals who are to stand up in behalf of the accused, and prevent insult and injustice”) even said a word. After being told by the stake president that he could not speak on behalf of himself and the entire high council acceded to this demand, Byron Marchant knew it was a rigged trial and left the proceeding. He also appealed the case to the First Presidency of the Church, in order to have a re-hearing, but he had no success, the multiple “appeals” were all denied.
He even lost his job as a chapel janitor due to his excommunication. Luckily, he went to work immediately as a self-employed handyman. The whole story already feels like a David and Goliath story. The church was able to strip him of his church membership, eternal salvation, and his job. But, spoiler alert, less than a year later he felt vindicated when the policy did change. 8 months to make a real change in such an authoritative religion isn’t bad for anyone!
Protesting in April 1978
Nevertheless, Marchant persisted in his activism and staged a further protest on Temple Square during the April 1978 Mormon General Conference. This action led to his arrest for trespassing on church property. Temple Square does post signs stating “Visitors Welcome” though they deemed he was trespassing for being present and discussing the priesthood ban, and Elijah Abel. He spent the April General Conference of 1978 in jail, not to be released until the conference had ended. Undeterred, Marchant took legal action by filing a civil suit against church president, Spencer Kimball, and declared his intention to organize and lead a protest march on Temple Square during the upcoming October 1978 Mormon General Conference. He never had the chance to protest the priesthood ban again, because the ban was miraculously lifted by “revelation” in June 1978.
During this General Conference, the church leaders were again sustained. This time there was no recorded opposition. Byron had been excommunicated and was in fact sitting in jail at the time. N Eldon Tanner had this little bit to say during the conference, which hardly addresses “what takes place if anyone has a dissenting vote”:
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.
It is proposed that we sustain…The Sustaining of Church Officers, President N. Eldon Tanner, First Counselor in the First Presidency
Other more recent dissenting votes have ended in the same manner. For example, refer to Sam Young who also voted opposed regarding the practice of bishopric worthiness interviews with children asking probing questions of a sexual nature. There are also many other relevant stories of excommunication.
Priesthood Ban Lifted in June 1978
John W. Fitzgerald, Doug Wallace, and Byron Marchant could each take full credit for imposing this priesthood ban change on the church since the pressure was building up at the time from many sides. Marchant feels great about this credit still and said, “in order to toot my own horn, my 7 June 1978 lawsuit against Kimball happened at the right time to show that it (thanks to my lawyer Brian M. Barnard) was THE pivotal push over the edge and Brian Barnard Esq. deserves full credit”. Lifting the ban was announced a mere two days later on the 9th of June 1978.
Official Declaration 2 was issued in 1978 and removed the church-imposed ban on blacks receiving the priesthood of the church. This declaration was issued in June, and black members of the church immediately began being ordained to the priesthood. The declaration was detailed and voted as canonized in the next General Conference on September 30, 1978.
Official Declaration Canonized in October 1978
Byron Marchant’s opposition was in General Conference in October 1977. This was only 8 months before the announcement of the priesthood ban being lifted. His later protest was at the April 1978 General Conference, just 2 months before the priesthood ban was lifted. His ex-communication was exactly 1 year before the Official Declaration 2 was canonized in the next Semiannual General Conference in 1978. A lot of change in that one year. He wasn’t reprimanded for simply advocating for equality though, it was his regarding his public dissent. His dissent was ultimately regarding this issue though, which shortly afterward was changed.
News Coverage of Marchant’s Excommunication from the Church
Byron Marchant opposed the church policy of withholding the priesthood from blacks, was excommunicated, and made headlines because of it. Here are some newspaper clippings covering the story.
Dissident Mormon is excommunicated
As reported in the newspaper via the Associated Press:
SALT LAKE CITY – The man who cast the first vote In modern history against a leader of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been excommunicated and fired as chapel janitor.
Byron Marchant, 35, of Salt Lake, is the second opponent of the church policy withholding the priesthood from blacks to be excommunicated in the last two years.
All faithful Mormon males 12 years and older except blacks are trained to hold priesthood offices.
Marchant, who is white, said he will appeal the excommunication by the High Council Court in his stake (diocese), and a church spokesman sald Saturday the appeal would go to the First Presidency the three top leaders.
Marchant was called to a church court before the church’s semiannual conference two weeks ago after he announced a demonstration questioning the church policy.
The church court was postponed and Marchant called off his demonstration, but during the conference in the Salt Lake Tabernacle he cast the only dissenting vote In modern times against sustaining a church leader.
Marchant said he was excommunicated in a closed door trial which lasted until 4 a.m. Friday. He said he was informed of the verdict and the loss of his job later in the day by Stake President Narvel J. Scherzinger.
Scherzinger declined to discuss the matter, refusing to say even whether a trial was held. He said all trials are held in confidence and “in the spirit of love.”
Marchant said the excommunication was due to “open opposition” to church authority. “My behavior was embarassing to the church.”
He said he was denied permission to tape record the trial. He said he argued a recording should be made so false rumors would not be spread about the reason for his excommunication.
Many excommunications involve sex offenses, such as adultery or homosexuality. Advocating polygamy, which was once allowed by the church, now also results in excommunication.
Church spokesmen Don LeFevre said excommunications are handled at the local level and are not routinely reviewed by the higher authorities. He said results of excommunications are forwarded to church headquarters for membership records.
The other dissident excommunicated was Douglas A. Wallace, a Vancouver, Wash., attorney who had ordained a black Mormon into the priesthood.
Marchant was a church missionary to France for two years.
He was scoutmaster of a troop which included non-Mormon blacks in whose behalf the NAACP sued, challenging the policy which made it impossible for blacks to hold scout leadership positions because they were linked to priesthood offices. The case was dismissed after the church agreed to change the policy.Wilmington Morning Star, Vol 110 no 298, Wilmington NC, Saturday October 15, 1977
Former Mormon Missionary Excommunicated From Mormon Church
SALT LAKE CITY (AP) – A former Mormon missionary who publicly criticized his church’s denial of priesthood to blacks says he has been excommunicated and fired from his job as chapel janitor.
Byron Marchant, 35, Salt Lake City, cast the first vote in modern history against a Mormon leader at a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter day Saints (Mormon) conference earlier this month. Marchant, a church elder, had been called to a church court three days before the conference after he called for a demonstration against the church’s policy.
Marchant said he was excommunicated the most severe penalty imposed by the church in a closed-door trial which lasted until 4 a.m. Friday. He said he was informed of the verdict and the termination of his job as ward (parish) custodian later in the day by Stake (diocese) President Narvel Scherzinger.
President Scherzinger declined to discuss the matter. Jerry Cahill of the church’s public information office said his office had not been in- formed of any excommunication and normally would not be. He said each stake has the right to excommunicate its own members without consulting church General Authorities.
Marchant said he was excommunicated because of “open opposition” to church authority. “My behavior was embarrassing to the church.”
Marchant was a church missionary in France for two years in the 1960s. He comes from a Mormon family of 15 children.
Several years ago, Marchant was scoutmaster of a troop which included two black non-Mormon scouts on whose behalf the NAACP brought a suit involving the church’s priesthood denial.
The suit challenged a policy which made it impossible for blacks to hold scout leadership positions by linking them to priesthood office. The case was dismissed after the church changed its position.
Marchant said he would appeal the action to governing bodies of the church.The Daily Reporter, Dover, Ohio • Sat, Oct 15, 1977, Page 5
Salt Lake Tribune references Byron in 2021
Byron’s story even appeared in a more recent column, in the Salt Lake Tribune, regarding Natasha Parker’s ex-communication court. They were both refused admittance to their own court trial when they were interested in recording the proceeding.
In 1977, Byron Marchant was put on trial and ultimately excommunicated for his vigorous efforts to advocate for racial equality within the church. Marchant, who worked as a janitor for the church, would contest much of the process of his disownment. He claimed that his stake president had been pressured by Latter-day Saint general authorities in Salt Lake City to bring charges against him. He would later write that the charges of his apostasy were unclear.
Marchant tried to make his trial as public as possible. He sent out a news release inviting like-minded protesters to join him in the days before his trial in a silent march on Temple Square before General Conference. He also drew national media attention by refusing to sustain the governing authorities of the church at the gathering, casting a vote against first counselor N. Eldon Tanner because Tanner had signed a 1969 letter from the First Presidency that claimed that the prohibition on Black men holding the priesthood dated back to Joseph Smith.
For Marchant, as for many others, fairness came to include a commitment to radical transparency in church court proceedings. When the trial convened, Marchant insisted on tape recording the proceedings. This caused considerable controversy, as the official presiding over the trial maintained that allowing the accused to have access to minutes or a transcript of the trial was forbidden. Eventually, he was barred from using the recorder, after which he refused to actively participate in the trial. Marchant was told of the verdict against him the next day and subsequently fired from his janitorial position.
The issues of the rights of the accused in church courts have not altered radically since the 1970s. Rather than tape recorders, there is now concern about recording on cellphones. Social media makes it easier for the accused to organize supporters than it was in 1977.Commentary: Latter-day Saint excommunication was not designed to happen this way
Family Recounts Byron Marchant’s Story
A nephew retells this story from his view in a post on the Ordain Women website:
In the early 1970s, my uncle, Byron Marchant, was a young returned missionary from France, who was starting his new family with my aunt Gladys in an old red brick home on 500 East, across the street from Liberty Park. Byron had been the tennis pro at the park, and he loved the neighborhood. He was called to be the Liberty Ward scoutmaster. Unlike most wards along the Wasatch Front, the population living within the geographical boundaries of Liberty Ward was poor and heavily minority. Byron had encouraged both member and nonmember boys, alike, to join the Liberty Ward scouting program. His troop’s senior patrol and assistant senior patrol leaders were both of African decent.
The Church announced a new policy with regard to the Boy Scouts. Ward deacon quorum presidencies were also to occupy the scout troop leadership positions. This meant that the top two leaders in his troop would be banned from holding any leadership positions in the troop. Convinced that this new policy simply overlooked the unusual demographics of the Liberty Ward, Byron began to climb the ladder of the Church hierarchy looking for a sympathetic ear. He was convinced that if they listened, they would make an exception for his troop. From bishop to the First Presidency, there were no sympathetic ears. Rather there were rejections and strong warnings that his pleas could result in his excommunication.
These warnings were prophetic. In October of 1977, Byron raised his voice from the balcony of the Tabernacle during a conference session. He voted no, and declared that he could no longer sustain the Brethren. Shortly after, he was excommunicated. Eight months latter, President Kimball announced to the world that the Lord had spoken. Male members of African ancestry could now hold the priesthood.Raised a Mormon Feminist, S. Mark Barnes
Ahead of His Time
In 1978, the ban was lifted and the Official Declaration 2 was introduced into the scriptures that same year and the church formally announced the change on June 9, 1978. Was Byron ever readmitted to the church? Should the church welcome him as a hero? He voiced concern and the church saw it as humiliating, did his public outspokenness accelerate the change? It does seem that his inspiration was just a bit earlier than the prophets, seers, and revelators.
Today, the church continues to spin stories about the ban and denies that the ban was based on doctrine. There is clear documentation that the policy was based on what the church and leaders considered doctrine. Today they attempt to dismiss this previous church doctrine as folklore and racist theories of specific unnamed members (who happen to be prominent church leaders like Brigham Young).
How did the ban on blacks holding the priesthood affect you? How did lifting the ban affect you? Having such a reversal is a great step for the church to have taken, but why was it so needed? Wouldn’t it have been better for the church to have made this change in the 60s or the 40s or even not to have established the policy at all? The gaslighting and whitewashed correlated history told today surrounding the policy and subsequent lifting is a large shelf item for many who deconstruct their faith in the church. The church created this ban and then praises itself for removing the ban over a century later. Why praise them for correcting a mistake while simultaneously denying it was a mistake and gaslighting the world by stating it was only ever a policy and they don’t understand why it was even in place? Are you among those who point to this issue on their shelf of issues with the Mormon church? Tell your story at wasmormon.org and inspire others to learn the truth too. Read Byron Marchant’s story as he tells it in his “I was a Mormon” story he contributed to wasmormon.org which also contains a letter he wrote to President Russell M. Nelson detailing his experience.
- Byron Marchant’s wasmormon.org profile