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On Dec. 25, 1964, as Mitt Romney enjoyed his last Christmas break as a high school student in Michigan, two Mormon missionaries visited Darius Gray in Colorado Springs and asked him whether he had any last questions before joining the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

He had one. A proud African American, Gray expressed wariness over a description in the Book of Mormon of a dark-skinned tribe being out of favor with God and asked, "How, in any way, does that relate to me?" The younger of the two missionaries stood off to the side as his senior companion explained, "Well, Brother Gray, the primary implication is that you won't be able to hold the priesthood."

After a tumultuous night of prayer, Gray still felt a call to join the faith and went on to help found the Genesis Group, an official church support group for African American Mormons, which he believes paved the way for the 1978 lifting of the ban on blacks in the priesthood. It was an anguishing period that coincided with Romney's full embrace of his faith and his rise within it.

The mere mention of Romney and the church's ban on blacks is fraught. If he gets the nomination, the nation's first Mormon presidential nominee will challenge the first black president. Romney, the son of former Michigan governor George Romney, who had a strong record of civil rights activism, bears no responsibility for the doctrines of his church. But in the prolonged Mormon debate over whether the ban resulted from divine doctrine or inherited historical racism, Romney appears to have embraced the prevailing view: The ban was the word of God and thus unalterable without divine intervention.

Gray, who still chokes up discussing the day the church lifted the ban, wants to know more about Romney's perspective on the ban and how he struggled with it.

"It's a marvelous question," said Gray. "But there is only one person who can answer it."

The Romney campaign declined to expound upon the candidate's thinking at the time.

As the son of George Romney, the Michigan governor and a leading voice for civil rights within the Republican Party, Mitt was well regarded by the few black students at the prestigious Cranbrook School outside Detroit.

"I was the only African American in my class," said Sidney Barthwell Jr., a Romney classmate and later a classmate of Barack Obama at Harvard Law School. "I knew about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and that they didn't allow blacks to ascend to the priesthood. I knew that then. But George Romney was a tremendous social liberal and a tremendous supporter of the social rights movement."

Barthwell, now a magistrate in Michigan, said he never got any sense that Mitt Romney saw African Americans as anything but equals and that the Mormon church's ban never arose as an issue at school. But the subject became unavoidable as Romney returned from his mission in France and enrolled at Brigham Young University in 1969. The priesthood ban contributed to unprecedented volatility on campus.

In October of that year, 14 black players lost their places on the University of Wyoming's powerhouse football team for planning to wear black armbands in protest of the ban during their game against BYU. Stanford University, which Romney had previously attended, took the opposite stance, announcing at the end of 1969 that it would boycott athletic competitions with the church-owned university.

"I do remember Mitt being really angry with Stanford," said Kim Cameron, a friend at the time. "He felt like it was, A, naive, and, B, sort of a bigoted, narrow-minded perspective."

In the early '70s, when Romney served as a leader of BYU's sports booster organization, called the Cougar Club, opposing teams would throw tomatoes and worse at BYU players and their fans. According to Dane McBride, a member of the club and one of Romney's closest friends, there was a pervasive sense in the club that BYU was "under siege" from the protests. Their retaliation, he said, was to "raise more money for the school."

Furthermore, said McBride, the very notion of questioning the doctrinal ban was considered "unseemly as well as useless."

But that was not a uniform view.

Gray, the black Mormon pioneer, saw the ban as more a product "of the racial attitudes of this nation." While he understood that only a revelation from the top of the church could end the oppression, "We could advocate for it, lobby."

Mormon boys join the priesthood at age 12, a sacred rite that Mormons believe was restored to them by John the Baptist through Joseph Smith in 1829 after millennia of apostasy. At age 18, Mormon men enter a higher-level priesthood that allows them to serve as missionaries, hold positions of church authority and bestow the priesthood on others.

At church functions, Gray said, he and other black Mormons suffered the assurances of their white brethren that "you will have the priesthood in the world to come," or encouragements that if they lived worthy lives, "you will find your skin will become lighter and lighter."

As Romney bristled against the protests in Provo, Gray and two other black Mormons in Salt Lake expressed their frustrations to the church hierarchy. The church president at the time, the conservative Joseph Fielding Smith, responded by assigning three junior apostles — Gordon B. Hinckley, who would become president of the church; Thomas S. Monson, the current president; and Boyd K. Packer, who is next in line to be president — to meet with the three men. In an acknowledgment of their travails, the church established the Genesis Group in October 1971, although they reiterated, according to Gray, that the doctrine was a "policy of God" and that it would "take a revelation to change it."

The ground floor of the Joseph Smith building, which houses BYU's religion department, showcases a likeness of the golden tablets from which Joseph Smith is said to have translated the Book of Mormon. Paintings upstairs depict the Lamanites, the tribe in Mormon scripture that bears dark skin as a sign of God's curse.

In his office, religion professor Randy Bott explains a possible theological underpinning of the ban. According to Mormon scriptures, the descendants of Cain, who killed his brother, Abel, "were black." One of Cain's descendants was Egyptus, a woman Mormons believe was the namesake of Egypt. She married Ham, whose descendants were themselves cursed and, in the view of many Mormons, barred from the priesthood by his father, Noah. Bott points to the Mormon holy text the Book of Abraham as suggesting that all of the descendants of Ham and Egyptus were thus black and barred from the priesthood.

It's not clear whether Joseph Smith, the religion's founder, who ordained at least one black priest, supported the ban. But his successor, Brigham Young, enforced it enthusiastically as the word of God, supporting slavery in Utah and decreeing that the "mark" on Cain was "the flat nose and black skin." Young subsequently urged immediate death to any participant in mixing of the races. As recently as 1949, church leaders suggested that the ban on blacks resulted from the consequences of the "conduct of spirits in the pre-mortal existence." As a result, many Mormons believed that blacks were less valiant in the pre-Earth life, or fence sitters in the war between God and Satan. That view has fallen out of favor in recent decades.

"God has always been discriminatory" when it comes to whom he grants the authority of the priesthood, says Bott, the BYU theologian. He quotes Mormon scripture that states that the Lord gives to people "all that he seeth fit." Bott compares blacks with a young child prematurely asking for the keys to her father's car, and explains that similarly until 1978, the Lord determined that blacks were not yet ready for the priesthood.

"What is discrimination?" Bott asks. "I think that is keeping something from somebody that would be a benefit for them, right? But what if it wouldn't have been a benefit to them?" Bott says that the denial of the priesthood to blacks on Earth — although not in the afterlife — protected them from the lowest rungs of hell reserved for people who abuse their priesthood powers. "You couldn't fall off the top of the ladder, because you weren't on the top of the ladder. So, in reality the blacks not having the priesthood was the greatest blessing God could give them."

The current president of the Genesis Group, Don Harwell, considers such thinking vile. Driving to a local shooting range, he pulls over to find a bit of Mormon scripture on his iPhone.

"He denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free," reads Harwell. "I have it right here."

Harwell joined the church 30 years ago after his "womanizing" ended his marriage. As a young man, he considered Mormons "racists" for their ban on black priests, but in 1983 he met a women who was Mormon and underwent a profound spiritual conversion. That marriage eventually didn't work out because "it was hard for white girls married to black guys" in those days, he says.

At the Magna Gun Club, he opens up his rifle case, which displays a business card identifying him as the Genesis Group president, and laments the lousy shooting conditions with his friends — overwhelmingly white, Mormon and regretful of their church's past.

On the drive back to Salt Lake, Harwell makes it clear he does not appreciate any attempt to connect the historic plight of blacks in the church to Romney, whom he strongly supports.

"This is the only stuff they can come up with," Harwell says, referring to Romney's political enemies. While he gives credit to church leaders who agitated against the ban, he acquits rank-and-file members who remained quiet. "We have prophets, seers and revelators as our leaders, and we have to follow them," Harwell says, emphasizing that Romney "had no control over what the church did."

As Romney left Utah and moved to Massachusetts, a debate raged in Mormon intellectual circles between those who accepted the ban as doctrine and those who considered it a temporal policy. Progressives argued that the ban's origins lay in pioneers seeking to appease anti-abolitionists as they passed through Missouri.

In 1973, Lester E. Bush, an amateur Mormon historian, made a strong case that no church president had ever received a revelation instituting the ban and thus no revelation was required to lift it. The next year, in the face of a potential NAACP lawsuit, the hierarchy quietly reversed another policy against performing baptisms of the dead and allowed other sacred rites "for people who had any Negro blood in their veins." But the major issue was still the priesthood.

"There were internal conversations at the highest levels," said Philip Barlow, a professor of Mormon history and religion.

Romney remained disengaged with the issue. "I don't remember conversing with him about it," said Barlow, who served as a counselor to Romney in the Boston church. Romney "was a very practical leader, not a theologian, not a historian, not a scholar but a business genius."

In June 1978, Church President Spencer W. Kimball announced that God has "heard our prayers, and by revelation has confirmed that the long-promised day has come" in which "all worthy male members of the Church may be ordained to the priesthood without regard for race or color."

The lifting of the ban, which, like the church's anti-polygamy Manifesto, is now part of church scripture, was an indelible moment that many Mormons consider the most emotional in their lives. Romney has said he pulled his car over to the side of the road to weep with joy upon learning of the lifting of the ban. "Even at this day it's emotional," he said in 2007 on "Meet the Press."

Only five months after his revelation, Kimball dedicated a flagship temple in Brazil, a key gateway for expansion for a growing church. Soon after, the church sought to cleanse the aura of racism from church textbooks and, in 1981, even from a scriptural passage, in which a righteous tribe is described as "pure" rather than "white."

More than three decades later, the church says it still doesn't know where the ban came from.

"When I did my mission in Atlanta, there were still some people who are hurt, people wouldn't join because of it. They feel that it wasn't based on revelation, that it was purely discrimination," Barima Kwarteng, 24, a computer engineering major from Ghana, said as he carried books into the BYU library. "Some people were like, 'Why are you a part of this church?' "

Nearby, in the Wilkinson Center, students attended a '70s dance in honor of Black History Month. They dressed in funky outfits and listened to a DJ playing "Brick House" under a slideshow featuring a dunking Dr. J, the cast of "Diff'rent Strokes" and a box of Count Chocula cereal.

Ashley Wright, 19, a business management major, attended the party with an Asian American friend wearing an Afro wig.

"Growing up, I always thought it was a long time ago," Wright, who is white, said of the ban. "I thought that was forever ago. But then I was like, 'my parents were alive then.' "

Navirlene Volcy, a 19-year-old African American student majoring in neuroscience, spent the evening dancing in a circle with friends — some black, some not.

To her, the ban was a recent revelation.

"It kind of surprised me," said Volcy. "There's a class here where they talk about Brigham Young having feelings that colored people were inferior. How can you be a prophet and commune with God and think that?"

She said she'd like to know what Romney thought about the church's complicated racial past, but she added: "I'm not sure it would make a difference. It hasn't made me leave the church. People are imperfect."