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This piece tells the story of a long-forgotten black Latter-day Saint, William P. Daniels, who enjoys a singular position in LDS history: the only known black branch president to function in his office without holding the priesthood.
William P. Daniels loved to cook and looked dashing in a three-piece suit. A tailor by trade, Daniels had a charisma about him. Missionaries adored him, church leaders trusted him, and his name rang throughout the Church. No one enjoyed reading the Book of Mormon more than he did, and no one was more aggressive in handing out copies. But Daniels also had a problem. He was a black man in the white South Africa Mormon Church of Mowbray. Daniels knew well the kinds of doctrines that the Saints believed about his people. Daniels had visited Utah himself in 1915 and asked Joseph F. Smith to his face why the priesthood restriction was in place. By Daniels’s account, Smith gave him a blessing, assuring him that he would receive the priesthood in the next life. Before departing for South Africa, Daniels asked President Smith: “What do you want me to tell them?” Smith responded: “Tell them the truth, Brother Daniels.” Evan Wright, a former missionary to South Africa, remembered Daniels bearing his testimony of the Church “with tears running down his cheeks and dropping off his chin” that “someday, perhaps in the next life, he would be able to hold the priesthood.”
When Daniels returned to Mowbray, he took pen to paper in the Church’s defense. “My impression of the Mormon religion,” Daniels wrote, “is that the alleged danger to our population does not exist, instead of which the purpose of the Mormon missionaries is purely the presentation of the teachings of Jesus, as taught in the first centuries of the Christian Era.” Utah left Daniels impressed with Mormonism: “Everything that caused me to admire and strive to follow the standard of their faith, of which as [the] Queen of Sheba said to King Solomon regarding his wisdom, ‘the half was not told me.’”
After Daniels was baptized into the Church, he actively involved himself in Church services to the extent that he could. The mission president, Nicholas G. Smith, admired him: “Bro. Daniels gave us some very good thoughts,” he wrote in his journal. Daniels couldn’t stop talking about his trip to Utah: “Nothing was too good to be said about Utah & the Mormons.” But not everyone appreciated his efforts. Smith attended a Bible class with Daniels one evening. Daniels was “the only colored man present,” and a Brother Circuit “brought up the question of color.” Circuit’s comments were clearly unkind, as Daniels left the meeting “fe[eling] somewhat hurt.” Daniels was sensitive to the racial winds. John Smith, then a child, recalled that “they didn’t want to embarrass anybody” and “would sit right in the back” during Church services. When Daniels saw President Smith in Capetown, he “would try to dodge him because you didn’t associate with and greet blacks.” But when Smith saw him, he “would cut across anyway and put his arm around him. That was our Dad.”
No longer feeling welcome among the white Saints, Daniels improvised. By 1921, his whole family had joined the faith. So Daniels, with the approval of Church leadership, started his own family study group. With Daniels conducting meetings, the family made their own Mormonism around the kitchen table. They read Jesus the Christ, sang hymns such as “Oh My Father” and “Joseph Smith’s First Prayer,” and dreamt of moving to Zion in Utah. Daniels’s daughter, Alice, said that it “took [the family] 20 years to get through the book” since they would “read a line and then discuss it.”
Around 1932, mission president Don M. Dalton directed that the family group be incorporated into the Church as an official unit, with Daniels serving in the rather unusual position of “Branch President,” even if he did not hold priesthood office. For the remainder of Daniels’s life, his family branch appeared alongside other Church units in official Church publications; Church leaders called his group “the Branch of Love.” Dalton adored Daniels: he was “one of my loyalist, kindest, sweetest, friends.” The Church’s periodical in South Africa, Cumorah’s Southern Messenger, applauded the “thriving” branch. Daniels regularly invited “scores of missionaries” to “partake of the sweet spirit which won for the little branch the name, ‘the Branch of Love.’” Daniels died in 1936; Alice Daniels lived to attend the dedication of the Johannesburg Temple in 1985.
In the grand schema of the history of the black and Mormon communities, the story of William P. Daniels does not carry the kind of heady implications that accounts of black members such as Elijah Ables or William McCary do. By the time Daniels entered the picture, the doctrines (and I use that word advisedly) underlying the priesthood restriction had become entrenched and institutionalized. But Daniels does indicate that the priesthood restriction was a global system that, as with most global systems, that could be adapted to local circumstances. Indeed, Mormon leaders such as Smith and Dalton are to be commended for working within the parameters available to create a space in which the voice of black Mormonism could be heard.
But even more, Daniels requires that Latter-day Saints not fall into the trap of marginalizing the history of black people in Mormon history. Partitioning the story of black people to the peripheries of the LDS narrative not only makes the defense of bad doctrine possible; it is also incorrect. For too long, men and women of African descent have been identified by what they did not have rather than acknowledged for what they did. Indeed, if we can tell the stories of white men who walked 22 miles on a wooden leg to work on the temple, perhaps we have room in our popular memory for men and women who thrived within a hostile system, who created and facilitated communities of love in the face of it.
 Lavina F. Anderson, Nicholas Groesbeck Smith: A Documentary History, 1881-1945, MS in author’s possession, 165.
 Anderson Nicholas Groesbeck Smith: A Documentary History, 166.
 Nicholas G. Smith Diary, April 15, 1917.
 Nicholas G. Smith Diary, April 26, 1917, CHL.
 Lavina F. Anderson, Nicholas Groesbeck Smith: A Documentary History, 165.
 Mowbray Cottage Meeting Minutes, July 11, 1921, February 5, 1922, May 15, 1922, and May 18, 1925.
 Russell Stevenson, For the Cause of Righteousness: A Global History of Blacks and Mormonism (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2014), 53.
 “Resting Now from Care and Sorrow,” Cumorah’s Southern Messenger 10, no. 10 (October 1936): 153.