It’s hard to blame George Rickford for his response to the elders who told him in 1969 that, because there were traces of African blood in his mixed-race heritage, he would not be ordained to the priesthood if he were to join The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“I had a very hostile reaction,” Rickford remembered 30 years later. “I became very aggressive and after some heated discussion I kicked them out. . . . I gave them a real verbal tongue-lashing about discrimination and racism and all those kinds of words.”
But Rickford wasn’t just angry; he was devastated. After three months of intense investigation of the Church, that very morning he had woken with the conviction that it was true. He described himself as “glow[ing] inside” when the elders arrived that day, but things fell apart before he had a chance to share his new testimony with the missionaries.
“I wept like a baby after they had left,” Rickford said. “To have two friends, admittedly young men, come and tell me that I couldn’t hold this thing called ‘priesthood,’ it hurt my pride, it was an insult, and I was just totally disappointed.”
Called to Christian Service
Born and raised in British Guiana (now Guyana) in 1941, George grew up in a family prominent in the Anglican Church, but he fell out of activity late in his teenage years. He rediscovered his faith when he moved to England in 1963, and his devotion took him so far as to pursue a vocation in the ministry; he was a prospective ordinand in the Anglican Church when he met the missionaries in the summer of 1969.
For some time, Rickford fought against what he heard and felt, but by September his testimony of the restored gospel was taking root—until he learned of the priesthood restriction.Rickford prayed earnestly to know what to do and then felt compelled to make an appointment with a close friend who was a priest in the Anglican Church. Three days later, he traveled from his home in Leicester to London to meet with him. When the priest learned Rickford had been meeting with Mormons, he chastised him and harshly criticized the LDS Church. Then he asked Rickford to start at the beginning and tell him what he’d been taught.
“I started telling the Joseph Smith story. . . . As I told that story, I just came alive and something took over and I just radiated.”
“So I started telling the Joseph Smith story,” Rickford remembered, “and I saw him kind of looking at me very quizzically and his expression grew very grave. As I told that story, I just came alive and something took over and I just radiated.”
Realizing he couldn’t argue with the testimony Rickford was bearing, the priest advised him to get a good Bible with study notes to keep himself on track. Then, with an appeal to keep in touch, he sent Rickford on his way. “I just left his office and I can’t remember my feet touching the pavement,” Rickford said.
By the time Rickford returned to Leicester, it was 1:30 in the morning. Having left home expecting to be lectured on “messing about with other religions,” he’d returned with a renewed testimony and feelings of joy and hope in the future. Between the train station and his home, he felt compelled to stop in a park to thank God for the “marvelous day” he’d just experienced.
Despite their power, Rickford’s experiences that day hadn’t eliminated his concerns about the Church. He prayed, “O Father, what about this thing, because I don’t understand it,” he recalled. “Then I had a wonderful experience by way of a response. The word ‘faith’ was just spelled out letter by letter before my closed eyes and I heard myself respond to that. Some beautiful feelings just swept through me from head to toe.”
Consoling words came to his mind: “George,” he felt, “you don’t have to understand everything about my gospel before you commit yourself to it. Why don’t you show your faith by accepting what you’ve heard and commit the rest into my hands? Don’t trouble yourself. I will never lead you astray.”
Rickford was no stranger to spiritual matters, and he said he recognized the Spirit of the Lord in the feelings that came to him that night. “I just felt a glow inside and I heard myself say, still with my eyes closed, ‘Yes, Lord, I will. I will take it in faith. And thank you, by the way, thank you.’”
“I just felt a glow inside and I heard myself say, still with my eyes closed, ‘Yes, Lord, I will. I will take it in faith. And thank you, by the way, thank you.’”
Rickford’s faith was real, as were the troubling feelings that remained when he contemplated the priesthood ban. The missionaries—who visited Rickford the next day despite his angry directive to stay away—continued to face “a lot of challenging questions” from Rickford, but over the next month Rickford continued to study the gospel intently.
In October he penned a letter to the missionaries who were teaching him in which he called his continued investigation a miracle in the face of his concerns. “Perhaps you could call this an act of faith,” he wrote. Rickford expressed to the elders that he was beginning to believe that he did not have to be satisfied with every detail before submitting to baptism, believing that such an act was perhaps the surest way to the answers he sought.
A month later, Rickford was baptized. Later, he acknowledged that his struggles and his leap of faith made for a rock-solid testimony of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ. “My investigation prior to my baptism was such a challenging thing and my faith was tested so deeply, especially by the fact that I could not hold the priesthood,” he later said. “But having conquered that and having had my answer from the Lord, a very personal answer for me, I was left with no doubt at all. I describe it as going on raw faith.”
Two years later, he met a woman named June Brown-Stokes and introduced her to the gospel. She was baptized, and before long they were married. During their courtship, George had tried to help June understand what his ancestry and the priesthood ban would mean for their marriage and family, but for a new convert, it took time for the implications to truly sink in.
“It didn’t really hit me until we were married and had our first son, Michael,” June Rickford said. “I can remember watching the young men pass the sacrament with Michael on my knee, and it went through my mind, ‘Golly, Michael will never be able to do this.’ That is when I really understood what George had been trying to tell me.”
Although George Rickford was able to be baptized vicariously in the London England Temple for his father, who had recently passed away, the Rickfords couldn’t be sealed in the temple, and George’s opportunities to serve in the Church were severely limited by the fact that he didn’t hold the priesthood. But both loved the gospel and were willing to do whatever they could to serve.
For Rickford, his limitations in the Church were rarely bothersome. He recalled one brief moment of anxiety when a friend with whom he had shared the gospel was baptized and, within two weeks, knelt before the congregation to bless the sacrament. “I sat there in the congregation and I thought, ‘I’ve been in the Church now for seven years,’” he recalled. “And just for about half a minute I started to feel a bit of resentment. . . . But then it went, and I thought, ‘No, I rejoice in Him.’”
Rickford wrote in 1975 that he accepted the priesthood ban “in faith, without any reservation” and expressed his belief that, whatever his own condition then, God was just. “I am just grateful that the Lord’s priesthood is once again upon the earth, with all its attendant blessings, authority, and responsibility. It matters less to me who has it and who hasn’t, but much more how it is utilised.”
“I am just grateful that the Lord’s priesthood is once again upon the earth, with all its attendant blessings, authority, and responsibility. It matters less to me who has it and who hasn’t, but much more how it is utilised.”
“A Remarkable Night”
Having taught seminary almost since his baptism, Rickford was just finishing his final class of the year on the evening of June 9, 1978, when a phone call came in to the Church building. Someone was looking for the stake president.
Rickford took the call and heard Mike Otterson, head of the Public Affairs Department in the British Isles and a friend of Rickford’s, on the other end of the line. After learning that the stake president wasn’t there, Otterson couldn’t help but share his news with Rickford.
“He said, ‘You know, this is highly irregular, but I have a letter here that I would really like to read to you, George,’” Rickford remembered. Otterson proceeded to read the text of Official Declaration 2. The declaration extended the priesthood to all worthy males, regardless of race. The news was so unexpected it took Rickford a moment to understand what he was hearing.
“As he read, the implications of what he was reading dawned on me and I just felt goose bumps coming all over,” he remembered. “He finished and he said, ‘Are you still there?’ I said, ‘Does it say what I think it’s saying?’ So he said, ‘Yes.’”
Rushing straight to work, Rickford scribbled a note for his wife and had it delivered to the house. When June read it, her visiting teacher, who was there at the Rickford home, danced June around the room.
“She read it, and this is literally how she went,” June remembered. “She went, ‘Wheee!’ She said, ‘You can hold the priesthood!’ And she danced me round and round. . . . I just sat there in a trance. I just sat there and couldn’t say anything.”All night, George Rickford received phone call after phone call as word spread around the world.
Once George returned home, he and June talked all through the night about what the news would mean for their family. The change was monumental. The next morning, George Rickford was ordained a priest in the Aaronic Priesthood. Two months later, he was ordained a Seventy and was made the senior member of the stake Seventy’s quorum. And two months after that, George and June Rickford were sealed in the London England Temple, along with their four children.
Steady in the Faith
“The more I know about the gospel the more I realise that faith in God and His Son is the basic essential for any further knowledge and insight into their purposes for mankind,” Rickford wrote in 1975. “I find it significant that when I asked my Heavenly Father in all earnestness, whether the Church was true, He didn’t answer me either ‘Yes, it’s true,’ or ‘No, it isn’t.’ Instead He asked me to demonstrate my faith and trust in Him, and in His appointed messengers whom He had sent to give me the restored gospel. From that moment on, I decided to exercise more faith in spiritual matters than I had ever done before, and to leave it up to the Lord to guide me into His paths, because He knew that my heart was right and that I wanted only to find Him and to follow Him.”
Not long after the priesthood ban was lifted, Rickford was hired full-time by the Church Educational System to work in England’s seminary and institute programs. In 1985 he was called as bishop of the Birmingham Second Ward. “I do not have a single regret for joining this Church,” Rickford affirmed. “Through it I have come closer to a knowledge and testimony of Jesus Christ than from any other avenue I have travelled in the past.”