I think we’ve now achieved consensus in the United States that without regard to race, everyone should have an equal opportunity to enjoy life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. A century ago, however, our ancestors and the country fell far short of achieving that ideal. 1910 was in the middle of a particularly poor era. In the South, reconstruction had been abandoned and the policies of segregration and disenfranchisement of blacks had been established. The first great wave of black migration from the South to the North had begun. In the North, African Americans found industrial jobs, but they also encountered significant discrimination — often as pernicious as what they’d left, albeit subtler.
But remarkably, 1910 was the year that a black man was called and ordained to be an apostle. His name was John Penn and he was the first African American apostle of the Restoration Era.
Although in 1910, Latter Day Saints who traced their connection to Joseph Smith through the leadership of Brigham Young still banned blacks from the priesthood, this was not true for all Latter Day Saints. Taking the opposite stance was the Church of Jesus Christ that traced its line to Joseph Smith through the leadership of Sidney Rigdon and William Bickerton. Headquartered amid the steel foundaries of greater Pittsburgh, in Monongahela, Pennsylvania, Bickertonite membership was concentrated primarily in the industrial corridor between New Jersey and Detroit.
Although most Bickertonites were working class men and women of modest education, they had always embraced the ideal of racial integration and they preached the restored gospel to fellow workers regardless of race. This idealism was shown to be more than lip service when African American men were ordained to the church’s highest leadership positions, that of Seventy (of which there are precisely 70) and the Twelve (of which there are 12).
John Penn served as an apostle from 1910-1955, during which time he was an active missionary who brought the restored gospel to many other souls, especially working class Italian Americans.
Hats off to our Bickertonite cousins this Black History Month.