No more Limitations

July 16, 2007    By: Matt W. @ 7:29 am   Category: Mormon Culture/Practices

Mary Sturlaugson Eyer was the first African American woman to serve a mission for the church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She Served in the San Antonio Texas Mission starting September 28, 1978, just about 29 years ago. As we celebrate pioneer day this upcoming weekend, I thought it would be appropriate to share an experience of a pioneer from my neck of the woods.

Mary Sturlaugson grew up in a home with 23 other siblings and was proselyted by missionaries in 1976. She told them if they ever came back, she would kill them. The missionaries felt like they should come back but were discouraged by their mission president. Later, the mission president called those elders back and said he too felt like they should return. They did, and Mary answered the door with a knife in her hand.

Some time thereafter, Mary was baptized. This was very difficult for her as her family disowned her, and while she had a testimony of the Gospel, she had the terrible weight of folk doctrine bearing against her. She petitioned to serve a mission and was rejected several times. One member told her that the reason blacks did not hold the priesthood was because they were all too busy playing basketball in the pre-existence. (Any concept of pre-mortal unrighteousness related to priesthood exclusion has now been proven to be false doctrine.)

Then in 1978, God again touched the world with a message of great importance. Mary, who had once again petitioned to go on a mission received within a week not a rejection, but a call. It was to the San Antonio Texas Mission. Mary was terrified of this call because in 1978, there was still a pervasive fear of being lynched or killed by racists in Texas. Mary wrote a letter to President Kimball asking him for God’s second pick, as long as it wasn’t Mississippi. However, she never mailed that letter and accepted the call. I will leave it to another more skilled than I to share the adventures of Mary’s mission.*

What I truly want to share is this:

This is Mrs. Eyer’s description of the first time she went through the temple.

On September 8, I went through the Provo Temple for my endowments. I woke up that morning as if in a dream. I still couldn’t believe this was actually happening to me. Walking up to the temple that day, I felt as though hundreds of spirits were encircling me. There was such a feeling of love, it was almost overwhelming.

During the temple session I tried to concentrate on the presentation, but my thoughts kept wandering to the full meaning of what was happening in my life. I was actually sitting in the house of the Lord. I could now be married and sealed to an eternal mate; I could do temple work for my ancestors; I could have my family sealed; my children would be able to serve missions. The full blessings of the kingdom were open to me now.

I began to cry. No more limitations. I don’t fully understand why the priesthood blessings had been denied us by our Heavenly Father, but sitting there in the temple, with the tears flowing down my face, I kept remembering the scripture, “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.” A woman next to me must have been aware of my tears, because she reached over and took my hand. I looked at her to thank her, and I saw that she too had tears in her eyes.

As the temple session neared an end, a peaceful feeling of gratitude filled my heart. I was aware of the tears of others in the celestial room, though I didn’t know most of them. They came forward to hug me and express their happiness for the blessing I now had.

-A Soul So Rebellious, Mary Frances Sturlaugson, pgs. 77-78

Sister Eyer, may I also now shed tears of gratitude and come forward and express my happiness for the blessing you are.

*- Mary has published three very powerful books on her experieces. They are beautiful, well written, and have within them the power to change lives. I recommend them highly.

31 Comments »

  1. Thanks for this.

    Comment by Susan M — July 16, 2007 @ 8:14 am

  2. That was a fantastic post. Recently one of my best friends from medical school came to visit and we spent some time talking about our collective experience as female LDS members (her perspective as an African-American, and mine as an Asian-American)…we agree that there is peace whenever we’ve been in the Temple even when we can’t make sense of some of the negative racially-related experiences we’ve had in the Church. Thanks again for sharing.

    Comment by Di — July 16, 2007 @ 8:19 am

  3. Great post, I didn’t know anything about Mary Sturlaugson Eyer, she sounds amazing. I laughed out loud at the “playing basketball in the pre-existence” line. Possibly the dumbest explanation I have ever heard. The standard folklore was already racist, but this person managed to work in yet another racial stereotype on top of everything else. Simply amazing. Seriously, what could SNL add to that to make it any more ridiculous.

    Comment by Jacob J — July 16, 2007 @ 10:20 am

  4. I’ve often puzzled over why the church took such a very long time to embrace people of color fully, and reading this account, I think I understand a little part of it better. I think there’s a lesson in it that churches, like people, do not emerge in a state of perfection, but must constantly progress toward it.

    Comment by V the K — July 17, 2007 @ 9:45 am

  5. Great post Matt. In the end, it is we, the members of the church, who must take accountability for racial attitudes and exclusion. I’m grateful for members like Mary whose faithfulness and love motivate us to grow beyond our own limitations.

    When I was in Italy on my mission, in the spring of 1978, I was approached by an African woman from Ethiopia. Her name was also Mary (an assumed name, her real name was Ethiopian). It was the only time in my mission that someone approached me. She said: “I know you have the truth and I would like you to teach me” — just like that! We taught her and she quickly progressed toward baptism at her request. As her baptismal date approached, I was brought to a bit of a crisis because I refused to baptize her without fully disclosing the Church’s position on Africans and priesthood. She had a little boy named Simone who was 8 years of age. I couldn’t bear the thought of her learning about the priesthood ban after her baptism.

    I prayed for hours and hours, imploring the Lord to show me how it could be that African blacks would not be able to have the priesthood. I prayed for hearts to be softened and for the ban to be lifted and changed. As I was leaving my apartment to go to tell Mary about the priesthood ban, I received a call from the APs (they knew of my mini-crisis). They said that I shouldn’t tell Mary that Africans cannot have the priesthood because they had just received a communication from Salt Lake in the mission office stating that the ban on Africans having the priesthood had been revoked.

    I was very upset with them. I yelled at them over the phone: “How could you joke about a matter like this? You know how much I love this woman and how important this is to me. I cannot believe you’d joke about it.” They insisted that they weren’t joking. And then one of the APs said, “wait just a second.” He put the Mission President on the phone. There was one thing I knew about my Mission President. This man would never tell a joke. When he told me that it was true that Pres. Kimball had received a revelation lifting the priesthood ban, I fell to my knees with tears streaming down my face. I thanked my Heavenly Father right there.

    I still told Mary about the ban on the priesthood, but it just didn’t have the same import. It was so strange. I said, “until yesterday, Africans in our Church could not hold the priesthood. But that changed today and now they can.” When she asked me if they changed the policy just for her I said, “You bet your life!” (She spoke English a little and Italian hardly at all). She smiled and felt more than a bit special.

    However, the truth is that I always felt that my Father heard my prayer … and the prayers of many others that converged at the perfect moment for me and for Mary — both of them.

    Comment by Blake — July 17, 2007 @ 6:37 pm

  6. Wow. Great story Blake.

    Comment by Geoff J — July 17, 2007 @ 6:45 pm

  7. Blake, that is wonderful. Thanks for adding this.

    Comment by Matt W. — July 18, 2007 @ 5:57 am

  8. I love to see whenever someone can spread the word of this amazing woman. I met her when I moved to Utah and she was my Creative Writing teacher at a high school in Provo. She no longer works there but she had an amazing effect on me that changed my life. In my neighborhood book club, we just read her first book, A Soul So Rebellious. I am currently reading her following books and plan to read her daughter’s book again too. I recommend you read the entire trilogy. Thanks for posting this, I really feel that the more people who read her books may find her experiences helpful!

    Comment by Whitney M. — September 10, 2007 @ 10:21 pm

  9. Whitney, I wasn’t aware her daughter had a book. What is the title?

    Comment by Matt W. — September 11, 2007 @ 6:18 am

  10. Her daughters book is called, “Am I God’s Will? It’s Not East Being a Biracial Child”. I too have been blessed to know Mary personally, her daughter also, and I have never met such strong women. Taniyah and I have been friends for some time now, but have fallen out of touch, but I cannot tell you how wonderful these 2 women are. They have such strong testimonies, and are such a joy to visit with. If I have ever doubted anything in the Church, I have turned to Mary and Taniyah’s books and found that there is no reason to doubt.

    Comment by Erin — November 26, 2007 @ 8:33 pm

  11. Thank you for posting this and for all of your comments. I struggle everyday to learn to love and to forgive. Mary is a true example and I hope one day I can be like her.
    I have read her first book many times, but until today didn’t know she had more, or that her daughter had also written one. Thank you for making these things so available so that stubborn people like me can renew their faith and remember to call on the Lord.

    Comment by Suzie — January 28, 2008 @ 2:38 am

  12. I came across a picture today of Mary Sturlaugson. I had lost touch with her over the years as well. I was the LDS Institute Secretary in Austin, Texas and had just returned from my own mission in Las Vegas. Sister Sturlaugson and her companion were assigned to the Institute. When transfers were given it left the sister missionaries in a three-some. I was asked to assist them briefly until the new sister arrived. I was touched with her testimony then and wondered what happened to her over the years. Today I came across her picture and found this web- sight. I am so greatful the Lord has continued to bless her life. I hope that one day Iwill cross her path again. She is a wonderful pioneer.

    Comment by Carol Bridger — April 27, 2008 @ 1:46 pm

  13. I read two of Mary Sturlaugson Eyers books for the first time recently, and was also impressed and inspired by her faith and unconditional love. I will definately pick up the third. My favorite passage:”…I knew that when enough of you, who already had that blessing in your lives, became so concerned and full of love for your black brothers and sisters that you went down on your knees and made your cries of love and concern known to our Father in Heaven, the doors would open.” –He Restoreth My Soul–p.58
    Reminds me of how important it is for all of us to share one anothers’ burdens, and pray for one another, and backs up what Blake said about we as church members being accountable for racial attitudes.

    Comment by Alisha — June 21, 2008 @ 10:49 pm

  14. I had never heard of Mary Sturlaugson. This past week I was browsing a book store in Nauvoo and came across a copy of A Soul So Rebellious. I bought it and couldn’t put it down. I told my husband and children that they must read it! She has an amazing story! I could identify with her growing up in a large poor family. However I grew up in a large poor white LDS family. My heart broke for the injustices she and all blacks have suffered! I am happy to learn she has written more books. I will be looking for them!

    Comment by Carolyn M. — May 13, 2009 @ 9:27 pm

  15. Thanks Carolyn. Sometimes it amazes me that these old posts are still read. Mary S. is a bit of a hero of mine. Some day, I hope to meet her.

    Comment by Matt W. — May 14, 2009 @ 6:22 am

  16. Thanks for bringing this post back, Carolyn. What an amazing woman.

    I’ll never forget a trip to the Atlanta temple years ago when we lived in Alabama. I was in the Stake Mission Presidency and had been praying for a way to reach into the Black community for some time. All I can share of my experience is this:

    I wish every member who still harbors some kind of racial prejudice could sit in the temple and see the hand of the Lord extended toward them – and have it be black. That is probably the single most powerful symbolism I can imagine, and it left an indelible impression on my soul that day.

    Comment by Ray — May 14, 2009 @ 9:47 am

  17. I have been powerfully touched today. I found a copy of “A Soul So Rebellious” this morning on my mother’s bookshelf. I knew I had to read this book. I picked it up and didn’t put it down until the very last words were completely finished. I identify with this woman so much, not because I am black or because I have faced a lot of persecution, but because I too have a rebellious soul that needs to be rescued.

    The words…”that He would descend from His throne divine, to rescue a sould so rebellious and proud as mine”, continue to run through my mind over and over. “Oh it is wonderful, that He should care for me enough to die for me”. The amazing part is that He didn’t just die for me, He also reaches out His loving arms to someone who consistently tries to push His love away. At one point in my life, I wasn’t even willing to try to obey Him. And yet He was persistent, patient – time after time, He gave me more chances to repent, sent people to help, the more I pushed away, the harder my trials got, until one day I realized I couldn’t do it alone, I got down on my knees, and the healing was able to begin.

    It’s been twelve years since my personal repentance process began. Since then, I too was able to serve a full-time mission, I am now able to enjoy the blessing of the temple, I have three beautiful children, and a loving husband, and yet with all these blessings my heart contines to be rebellious.

    I have a hard time doing the Lord’s will without complaint. Luckily, He continues to humble me, to teach me, to never give up on me. Unfortunately, I continue to remind myself more of Laman and Lemuel, than Nephi and Sam (they obeyed their father, went into the wilderness, but boy did they let everyone know that they didn’t like it). Still, the Lord continues to bless me.

    Ironically, as I look back on my life, some of my greatest blessings have been the outcome of those times of trial that I complain about (or complain through I should say). During those times, I am closest to the Lord, I am willing to look to Him for guidance. I am humble, seeking, wanting, willing to follow, and probably a little less rebellious.

    I am so grateful for Mary’s example, dedication, persistence, and honesty with herself and others. I can’t wait to read the other stories about this amazing woman.

    Comment by Phame Jensen — May 23, 2009 @ 1:16 pm

  18. Mary Sturlaugson became one of my great heroes in 1995, and I didn’t even know she was Mary Sturlaugson Eyer by then!

    I had just barely joined the Church and was kicking and screaming all the way. My wife was patient with me (As patient as an Ozark woman can be!) but it took a friend of hers to recognize how rebellious I was (and tend to be, to this day, in too many ways). He lent me his copy of Mary’s first book and it changed something inside me.

    I was delighted years later, when we moved from Alaska to Springville, Utah, to find ANOTHER book by this same Mary Sturlaugson — and wished there were more. Last Friday, I found a copy of her third book — and now I see there is a fourth book to seek out!

    This woman is a giant, and I owe her a lot. Someday, I hope to tell her how much she has done for me and my family.

    *jeep!
    –Grandpa Chet

    Comment by Grandpa Chet — June 21, 2009 @ 10:32 pm

  19. Sorry, but for poeple of my generation who grew up in the Mormon religion, we all know that the teaching that black people on this earth were not as well-behaved in the previous life than people who are born white, was doctrine in the church. I was raised on this, it was taught in Sunday School and when I was at BYU. It’s fine that the church has changed their stand on this, but please don’t deny that it was doctrine. It was taught to me and to everyone else in my generation over and over again!

    Comment by Lela Zadrozny — September 2, 2009 @ 6:17 pm

  20. I was so happy to hear about Mary Eyer’s daughter Taniyah. In 1984 she came to the Detroit area to do a book signing. She was an inspiration! I was raised in a way that made me prejudiced and I was new in the Church. Ms. Eyre’s talks were so inspiring, I quickly came to understand that everybody is a child of God. Because of this, I wrote my own picture book for children that I have never published. Getting back to Mary S. Eyer’s appearance in 1984, her mother and some siblings drove up from Chicago and I believe there was some reconcilliation. Sadly, the stress and the heat and humidity was getting to Mary and some ladies in the Relief Society feared she might miscarry. Until now, I always wondered what became of the baby and now I know about Taniyah. Not only did she survive to be born, she is a young woman and herself an author. Thank you for sharing your information.

    Comment by IamLokiTheManitou — March 20, 2010 @ 4:36 pm

  21. “A Soul so Rebellious” was such a light to me in my teenage years. I went to a fireside Mary S. gave in the mid 80s when I was at BYU. I wonder where she is now.

    Comment by Johnna — May 16, 2010 @ 9:45 pm

  22. Thanks for your wonderful and heart warming Post. I too am very much acquainted with my good and delightful friend Mary S. Eyers, and we became friends while at Brigham Young University beginning in the Fall of 1981, and lost track of her after she left in 1984, while I was still attending Brigham Young University. I have enjoyed reading her two books, and have had some very interesting conversations with her regarding her family, conversion in the Church, her Mission, and etc. I was totally moved many times with her strong Testimonies, and it had a lasting influence on me since. I am an African-American brother and a convert since 1977. I am very grateful to have had received so many blessings from our Heavenly Father, and because of my friendship with Mary, who had helped me to keep believing in the Gospel. I am looking forward in reading her Daughter’s book, and shall try to purchase it soon. I remembered quite well when she was born, and she was a beautiful child. I hope that Mary will get a chance to respond to the beautiful and heart warming comments that had been expressed. Again, thanks for the Post, and what a treat it has been.

    Chester Lee Hawkins

    Comment by chester lee hawkins — July 13, 2010 @ 8:03 pm

  23. Thank you Chester. Your comment means a lot to me.

    Comment by Matt W. — July 19, 2010 @ 3:06 pm

  24. I was blessed back in 1977-78 to have Mary as my H.S. gym coach in a small town in Utah. I also got to know “Coach” Mary on a personal basis. One day, my friends and I were excitedly discussing a coming up Youth Temple Trip while in her office. We turned to her and said “Coach Mary, are you going to come?” (She often came to our youth activities) She looked at us very sadly and explained that she couldn’t go. I was naive, I thought it only effected blacks holding the priesthood….not that blacks couldn’t go to the temple at all! We all began to cry, our hearts breaking for her. It just didn’t make since and was so unfair!
    I will never forget with tears in eyes telling us, “I believe when enough of our white brothers and sisters get on their knees and pray for their black brothers and sisters to have the blessing of temples and the priesthood, it will happen. Start praying.”
    And so my friends and I began to fast and pray for that very thing.
    That following summer, while walking across a college campus during Utah Girls State, a girl ran up to me and said “Detra, come see the news, the blacks have been given the priesthood!” I began to cry and thank my Heavenly Father as I ran to our dorm.
    I know that it wasn’t just a group of High School girls prayers that turned it all around, but I do believe that Mary being a part of my life only months before it changed, was no accident. It’s what I needed to open my eyes and love my black brothers and sisters more.
    I haven’t seen or talked to Mary for over 10 years, and found this site in my search to reconnect with her.
    It has been an honor to call her my friend and know the human side of her as well. (She often ran late and was an awful cook! LOL)
    Thanks for all the wonderful posts! Detra

    Comment by Detra Borner — September 5, 2011 @ 5:50 am

  25. I remember meeting Mary while she was serving her mission in Killeen, Texas. My older sister would often go on splits with the sister missionaries. During this time my sister Sandra and Mary became great friends. My sister and I joined the church when we were just teenagers. Our parents have never joined the church but have always supported us in our choice. I think the mentality people have is from the way they were brought up. I have many friends who are of different races, many are like siblings to me. I was raised to love all people and to respect them. It breaks my heart to hear negative comments about people of another race just because of their color. I am grateful for people like Mary in this world. Mary is a great spiritual example to many. I appreciate all the wonderful uplifting comments that have been posted.

    Comment by Katherine Rushton — October 22, 2011 @ 9:16 pm

  26. Thanks for your comments, Katherine and Detra.

    Comment by Matt W. — October 24, 2011 @ 12:08 pm

  27. I just finished reading “A Soul So Rebellious” which had belonged to my grandmother, whom passed away many years ago. My mother told me it was one of her favorite books. I now know why it was.
    What a remarkable and courageous woman you are Mary Frances Sturlaugson and what a wonderful mother you have for teaching you about God and to love unconditionally.
    I’m grateful that you shared your experiences and your testimony. It has helped me to better understand how difficult it was/can be for my non-white brothers & sisters.
    Growing up white, in multi-cultural Canada, I’ve never really experienced intolerance, hate or racism, so thank you for sharing your story. It reminds us that we are all God’s children and everyone is worthy of our love and respect.

    Comment by Kim — May 28, 2012 @ 2:03 pm

  28. I would like to know if anyone knows how I can contact Ms. Eyer again.

    Back in 2010 she was my English teacher here in the UK but left after a year to go back to California.

    She was such a great inspiration and helped me get started with my dreams to become a published poet. I owe her so much and wondered if anyone knows where she is?

    Comment by Joseph — October 10, 2012 @ 2:46 am

  29. Thank you! This morning I awakened by/to such a strong feeling of the warmth of love and couldn’t explain it. Since I have allowed myself to become completely inactive since going to Saudi Arabia to teach, the feeling was somewhat unnerving, yet the call in my heart was greater. It was while looking on the internet for the nearest LDS ward in this area that I came across this website and read all your comments. Thank you; it had somehow been your love I had felt so vividly and strongly as I had awakened. The Lord moves in mysterious ways, His wonders to perform. Although my life has been filled with a lot of pain (losing my dear mother, my brother Roy), I know it’s time to stop running and be grateful for the constant friend I have always had in the Savior. I am blessed, so very, very blessed! Your love found me, strengthened me, and moved me to tears. Thank you for being my brothers and sisters.

    Comment by Mary Sturlaugson Eyer — April 6, 2014 @ 7:32 am

  30. Mary:

    Thank you so much for this comment. It made my day. Living in San Antonio, I think about you all the time. You are a modern day heroine and represent so many good things to me. To hear you say that I have done good in return to you is a massive privilege and blessing.

    Comment by Matt W. — April 6, 2014 @ 7:58 am

  31. Mary, I don’t know if you will come back and read this, but I want to share something with you (as well as the others on this site). I received your book “A Soul So Rebellious” in 1987 as a high school graduation gift from my then-boyfriend. He was amused by the title, because I was a strong-willed person (and I still am!) with a strong testimony, and he knew I like autobiographies.

    I married (not to the boyfriend who gave me the book) about a year out of high school. I wanted to have a huge family and give birth to lots of babies. The Lord had another calling for us. When we found out that we would never have biological children, my husband and I turned to adoption. As we moved through the adoption process, we felt called to be open to the adoption of babies who were African-American. We knew if the Lord sent us one baby that was full or part Black, then we would adopt more of his race so he wouldn’t feel isolated in a family of whites. Sure enough, in 1994 we were blessed with a precious spirit who is mixed race, but primarily identifies himself as Black. We are the proud adoptive parents of two sons (ages 20 and 12) and two daughters (18 and 16) (A fifth child passed away at the age of 10 months). All are full or mixed race Black. I have always felt badly that I could not guide them as a parent who understood firsthand what it means to be a Black person in a White world. Yet my children are finding their own way and teaching us in the process. Over the years I remembered your story and came to understand it in a whole new way.

    Our oldest son is now serving a mission in Jackson, Mississippi. He is an incredible young man who is learning even more than ever before what it means to be Black. Yesterday I happened to remember your book and dug it out of storage. I wish I had passed it along to my son before he left, but I am mailing it to him now. I feel so moved by your conversion and testimony, and I believe that it can and will inspire him.

    I asked my husband to look on the Internet to find out what became of you, and he found the comment that you made just this month. I want you to know how much of an inspiration you are and how much I love your story and gather strength from your testimony. I hope you know how many people you have touched with your frank and beautiful honesty and I pray that you will continue to be blessed in time of trial.

    Comment by Karla Huntsman — April 18, 2014 @ 1:59 pm

Leave a comment

RSS feed for comments on this post.