One of Stephen Taggart’s Lasting Legacies

Growing up in East Lansing, Michigan, Stephen Taggart was a couple of years older than I.  He was tall, goodlooking, and very bright.  He served a Mormon mission to England.  On his return to the United States, he attended the UofU where was an understudy of Sterling McMurrin.  From there he moved on to Cornell where he pursued an advanced degree in sociology.  Stephen died prematurely of Hodgkins Lymphoma.  But before he died he published an early treatise asserting that the Mormon black issue was a product of Missouri compromises and not a doctrine.  Today, his work is largely overlooked and his contribution to the Mormon hierarchy’s decision to give blacks the priesthood is under appreciated.  I found the following excerpt from the 2005 biography of President David O. McKay very enlightening:

(Sterling) McMurrin had not intended that his letter be publicized (detailing a conversation that he had had with President David O. McKay about blacks and the LDS priesthood ban).  Sometime later, however, one of his former students, Stephen Taggart, got wind of it.  Taggart was then a graduate student at Cornell University working on his PhD in sociology.  He was writing a paper on what he believed to be the Missouri origins of the church position on blacks, which he had decided to research when he heard McMurrin’s 1968 speech to the NAACP chapter.  He came to McMurrin with a draft manuscript and asked about McMurrin’s 1954 meeting with McKay.  McMurrin told him of his recent letter to Llewelyn McKay (David O.’s son):  “He wanted to put it in his book.  I told him that it was, as far as I was concerned, OK, but I would prefer that he check it all out with Llewelyn McKay.  And he did check it out with Llewelyn, and Llewelyn confirmed the matter just as I have described it here, and Taggart put it in the book, with footnotes to the effect that he checked it out with Llewelyn McKay and Llewelyn had confirmed it.”

In late 1969, a copy of Taggart’s manuscript, which now included McMurrin’s letter to LLewelyn McKay, came into the possession of Hugh B. Brown, first counselor in the First Presidency.  Remarkably, Brown had been completely unaware of McKay’s earlier statement to McMurrin, inspite of having been a member of the First Presidency for eight years.  Astounded by the news, Brown, who had long advocated reversing the priesthood ban, gave a copy of Taggart’s manuscript to Lawrence McKay, the eldest of McKay’s four sons, and suggested that he take the matter up with his father.  Lawrence complied with Brown’s request, in the process initiating an unprecedented storm of controvery that pitted some of the church’s top leaders against each other for the remaining months of McKay’s life, yet which remained largely unknown to anyone else.

On September 10, 1969, Lawrence and Llewelyn McKay visited their father to discuss Taggart’s manuscript and its possible implications.  Fatefully, as they entered their father’s apartment they encountered Alvin R. Dyer, who had escorted a visitor there.  They asked that Dyer stay. He readily agreed and described the meeting in his diary.

“We sat in the President’s office, the President seeming quite alert andd roused for the discussion to follow.  Lawrence explained that on the basis of his father’s statement to Sterling McMurrin some time ago, that the withholding of the Priesthood from the Negro by the Church was a practice and not a doctrine.  An article had been written for “Dialogue Magazine” by Brother Taggart, who is the son of the President of USU, which had received more or less an endorsement by Llewelyn based upon the reported interview which President McKay had with Sterling McMurrin.  This article seemed, in Lawrence McKay’s mind, to bring the whole Negro question regarding the right to hold the Priesthood into focus, and that if this truly was a practice and not a doctrine, as Sterling McMurrin had inferred from President McKay’s statement to him, then why was this not the time to drop the practice.  He asked his father if this was not perhaps the time to announce that the Negro could be given the Priesthood, which he alone could announce, and to do so now voluntarily rather than to be pressured into it later.”

Dyer, who had not yet seen Taggart’s manuscript and who was adamantly opposed to a reversal of the priesthood ban, forcefully entered the conversation at this point feeling that it was “my responsibility to make some comments concerning this vital matter.”  He thereupon reiterated prior explanations of the ban, including the “curse of Cain” that McKay seemingly abandoned years earlier.  After completing his remarks, Dyer asked Lawrence for a copy of Taggart’s manusript, saying “I would be pleased to study it and make a report to the President.  President McKay asked that I do this.  Lawrence then stood up and said, ‘Perhaps father, we had better leave this with you and you can think about it.'”

A week later, Dyer met with three other counselors in the First Presidency:  Brown, Tanner, and Smith.  McKay, who had turned 96 earlier that month was unable to attend because of his failing health.  In briefing the other counselors concerning the prior week’s meeting with McKay’s sons, Dyer denounced Taggart’s article, saying that he “considered it one of the most vicious, untrue articles that has ever been written about the Church.”  Dyer said that he intended to continue to study the article, and would show “what the true facts are and give the references.”

The following week, McKay’s counselors met with him and further discussed the Taggart paper.  Their central concern was Taggart’s inclusion of McMurrin’s description of McKay’s beliefs.  Two of the counselors, Dyer and Joseph Fielding Smith, questioned McMurrin’s veracity.  Tanner, however, countered that he had received a letter from a man whose credibility he accepted, which “mentions that in conversing with President George Albert Smith’s son recently he stated that  President Smith had said that categorically the Church’s position on the negro question was one of custom not of revelation.”  Joseph Field Smith countered, “He was wrong on that,” without offering any supporting evidence.  McKay had said nothing up to that point; but although weak, he was “very lucid” that morning.  “The brethern asked me if I wanted to make any ruling on the matter and I answered that I did not want to make any statement on the question this morning.”  It was the last time McKay discussed the subject in a First Presidency meeting.

The debate now shifted from McKay to the members of his inner circle.  Two weeks after the First Presidency meeting, on October 8, 1969, Dyer met privately with Brown to discuss Taggart’s article and its implications.  According to Dyer diary, both men had studied Taggart’s article and had come to opposite conclusions. . . .

It took several years before the priesthood ban was finally lifted.  But it seems very obvious that Stephen’s manuscript had a major impact on the ultimate decision.  One person can have a difference, even on a very top-down organization.  For me, this is hopeful news.

Unfortunately, even though the blacks have been given the priesthood, the “curse of Cain” doctrine still lives in the heart of many LDS Church members.  And that is truly unfortunate.

Source:  Gregory A. Prince and Wm. Robert Wright, 2005, David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism, The University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City, p. 97-99.

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