Opening with the words from an old spiritual hymn, “We Shall Overcome,” Keith Hamilton, a criminal justice attorney and an adjunct professor at the Brigham Young University
Law School, addressed attendees at the weekly devotional at the Ogden LDS Institute of Religion on Wednesday.
Hamilton was the first black student to graduate from BYU’s J. Reuben Clark School of Law. He was also one of the first black bishops to serve in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, otherwise known as the LDS church or the Mormon church, and he is the author of Last Laborer: Thoughts and Reflections of a Black Mormon.
Hamilton spoke about his conversion to the church in 1980 when he was a senior in college and how the answers to his prayers were “short and simple, yet undeniable.”
He went on to explain how two missionaries found him in Raleigh, N.C., his senior year at North Carolina State University. The elders gave him a copy of Truth Restored by Gordon B. Hinckley, the former prophet of the church.
“After I finished the book, I was amazed at the parallel between the treatment of LDS people and generations of American slaves and formers slaves,” he said. “. . . And I told the elders that I felt in many ways the Mormons had been treated like blacks.”
Although Hamilton highlighted a few topics in his talk, he emphasized overcoming adversity and various trials in his life, and the “Mormon and blacks priesthood ban controversy.”
On June 1, 1978, the LDS church lifted its ban on black people receiving the priesthood, which is a set of special blessings and powers bestowed upon worthy males in the church.
“Over the years, I came to understand that some of the adversity encountered by those saints was by way of chastisement from the Lord,” Hamilton said.
He said some members feel like the trials and challenges blacks encounter are consequences of being cursed by God. As he pondered why those members felt that way, Hamilton said his thoughts always came back to the church’s former priesthood ban on blacks, which eventually led him to do an intensive study of the church’s doctrinal relationship with blacks.
“For me, the priesthood ban issue is a matter of faith, and not history,” said Hamilton, speaking on the controversy. “. . . It should be approached spiritually.”
He asked attendees to look at the priesthood ban issue through God’s eternal perspective and not place judgments based solely on historical context. He also said that people who continue to have questions about the issue should come to God with their questions.
Alex Greenhalgh, acting president of the Ogden LDS Institute Student Council, attended the devotional and said the priesthood ban on blacks didn’t become a big deal to him until he served his two-year mission in Houston, Texas.
“People asked me about it a lot, and from there I was able to study that and learn reasons that might not have been helpful for anyone, but helpful for me to understand,” Greenhalgh said.
He said he enjoyed Hamilton’s talk, and that “applying it to me in my life is very important.”
This wasn’t Hamilton’s first time to Weber State University, but it was the first time he spoke at the Ogden LDS Institute’s weekly Wednesday devotional.
“I love the young people; I love speaking to college students, (but) I’ve never spoken to Weber State students before,” Hamilton said. “Ogden and Weber State only made it more honorable, because it was so different and fresh. But to come up here is an honor.”
Hamilton said the biggest adversity he faced during his education was the culture in Provo at BYU Law School. According to Hamilton, he was a Southern boy, and the first and only black student at the law school.
“Provo was a different world,” he said.
Hamilton said he had a friend and roommate he could talk to about anything.
“I came close to going home, but the Lord comforts you,” Hamilton said. “He didn’t change the burden; he just made it lighter.”