African Americans Could Not Hold the Priesthood Until 1978
MYTH: African-Americans were not allowed to hold the priesthood until 1978.
In 1832 Elijah Abel, a free African-American man, was baptized as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He received a patriarchal blessing from Joseph Smith, Sr. and was then ordained to the office of elder on March 3rd, 1836 by Zebedee Coltrin, who also ordained Abel to the Nauvoo Seventies Quorum in December of that same year.
Abel served three missions for the LDS Church (his first to New York/Canada; his second mission to the “coloured [sic] population” of Cincinnati and his third mission to Ohio/Canada) After returning from his first mission, Abel participated in the temple ordinance of baptism for the dead at the Nauvoo temple.
However, in 1848 Brigham Young refused to allow additional blacks to hold the priesthood and in 1853, nine years after Joseph Smith’s death, Brigham Young refused to allow Abel and his wife to receive their temple endowment and sealing, although he did not revoke Abel’s priesthood authority. As a result of President Young’s decision, the majority (but not all) of black men from that time forward were not allowed to hold the priesthood until 1978, when church policy was changed.
It should be noted that there has been historical confusion and contradiction regarding the reason for this policy. Brigham Young taught what became known as the “Curse of Cain Doctrine,” the belief that blacks were the descendants of Cain, the son of Adam and Eve, who was cursed with a black skin for murdering his brother. Those spirits who were less valiant in the war in heaven were then born under the curse of Cain and as a result were forbidden from holding the priesthood.
This teaching, although accepted by many of the early LDS Church leaders, was at odds with the teachings and actions of Joseph Smith Jr. Modernly, the Curse of Cain doctrine has been rejected by the LDS Church.
Although no official revelation was recorded preventing blacks from holding the priesthood, in 1949 the first presidency of the LDS Church declared that the official Church policy preventing blacks from holding the priesthood was a matter of “commandment from the Lord.” The first presidency declared:
"The attitude of the Church with reference to Negroes remains as it has always stood. It is not a matter of the declaration of a policy but of direct commandment from the Lord, on which is founded the doctrine of the Church from the days of its organization, to the effect that Negroes may become members of the Church but that they are not entitled to the priesthood at the present time."
In 2003 Donald Jessee, the official spokesman for the LDS Church, issued a letter which declared that any speculation in the early Church regarding the issue of why blacks were not allowed to hold the priesthood was merely personal opinion. He then states that God has never provided a reason for the ban.
In regards to your question of “why were black members of the LDS Church denied the Priesthood prior to 1878.” [sic] The position of the Church is that we don’t know what the reason was, for the lord has never revealed it.
Paul said, “The Lord hath before appointed the bounds of the inhabitants of all men for to dwell upon the face of the earth.” Only the Lord knows that He has not revealed to us the answer.
Statements made by Church members or leaders prior to President Kimball’s revelation regarding this question, were an expression of their own opinions and are not then nor now the position of the Church.
Regardless of the “why” for the ban, with few exceptions, blacks were denied the priesthood from 1848 to 1978. The exceptions included Elijah Abel, his son, Enoch, and grandson, Elijah, who were ordained as elders to the priesthood on November 27, 1900 and September 29, 1935 respectively.
 Minutes of the Seventies Journal, Hazen Aldrich, entry for 20 December 1836. LDS Church Archives as cited by Alma Allred in, "The Traditions of Their Fathers, Myth versus Reality in LDS Scriptural Writings" in Newell G. Bringhurst and Darron T. Smith (eds.) (2006). Black and Mormon (Urbana: University of Illinois Press)
 Lester E. Bush and Armand L. Mauss, eds, Neither White nor Black, Midvale, Utah: Signature books, 1984, pp. 33, 38, 76
 Lester E. Bush, Jr. and Armand L. Mauss, “Mormonism’s Negro Doctrine: An Historical Overview”, published in “Neither White nor Black: Mormon Scholars Confront the Race Issue in a Universal Church,” Signature Books, Midvale, Utah 1984, p.130
 Ibid p.130
 Hawkins, Chester L. “Report on Elijah Abel and his Priesthood”, Unpublished Manuscript, Special Collections, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah, 1985
 The First Presidency on the Negro Question, 17 Aug. 1949
 Newell G. Bringhurst, Black and Mormon. p.30