Reconsidering the Curse of Cain

Eugene England once shared an experience he had with the prominent Latter-day Saint Church leader, scriptorian, and doctrinaire Joseph Fielding Smith.  President Smith had written extensively on the subject of the priesthood and temple ban against individuals of black African ancestry, offering rationales for the ban that have since been disavowed by the Church.  During that time, England sought out the opportunity to meet with President Smith and recorded that:

I told President Smith about my experiences with the issue of blacks and the priesthood and asked him whether I must believe in the pre-existence doctrine to have good standing in the Church. His answer was, “Yes, because that is the teaching of the Scriptures.” I asked President Smith if he would show me the teaching in the Scriptures (with some trepidation, because I was convinced that if anyone in the world could show me he could). He read over with me the modern scriptural sources and then, after some reflection, said something to me that fully revealed the formidable integrity which characterized his whole life: “No, you do not have to believe that Negroes are denied the priesthood because of the pre-existence. I have always assumed that because it was what I was taught, and it made sense, but you don’t have to to be in good standing because it is not definitely stated in the scriptures. And I have received no revelation on the matter.”[1]

The story is a significant example for us to consider.  President Smith fully believed that the scriptures taught something.  When asked to look closely, however, he discovered that the scriptures did not, in fact, teach the idea he thought they did.  When confronted with that realization, rather than doubling down on the teaching in question, he admitted that he had been wrong in stating that it “is the teaching of the Scriptures.”

Now, I mentioned a couple weeks ago in a discussion thread that I would try to explain some of my perspectives on the rationales for the priesthood and temple ban, especially when it comes to ideas that have been viewed as being supported by the scriptures.  This is the first, likely of two posts, laying out my thoughts on some of these issues (the second post is now available here).  My hope today is to ask fellow Church members to consider taking a similar journey as Joseph Fielding Smith did with another of the teachings that upheld the priesthood and temple ban that is often assumed to be the teaching of the Scriptures—the curse of Cain as the origin of the ban.

I find it important to take this journey because it both helps us see more clearly what is and what is not taught in the Scriptures and because our current Church leaders have indicated that we should probably reconsider our beliefs about why the priesthood and temple ban was put in place.  Beginning in the late 1980s, Elder Dallin H. Oaks began to proclaim that while “some people put reasons to” the priesthood and temple ban, those reasons “turned out to be spectacularly wrong.”[2]  Elder Jeffrey R. Holland weighed in on the subject in 2006, stating that: “It probably would have been advantageous to say nothing, to say we just don’t know. … But some explanations were given and had been given for a lot of years. … At the very least, there should be no effort to perpetuate those efforts to explain why that doctrine existed. … We simply do not know why that practice, that policy, that doctrine was in place.”[3] In 2013, the Gospel Topics essay on Race and the Priesthood was published with the approval of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve and declared that: “Today, the Church disavows the theories advanced in the past that black skin is a sign of divine disfavor or curse, or that it reflects unrighteous actions in a premortal life; that mixed-race marriages are a sin; or that blacks or people of any other race or ethnicity are inferior in any way to anyone else. Church leaders today unequivocally condemn all racism, past and present, in any form.”[4]  These three witnesses together indicate to me that it is better to accept that we have no explanation from God for the priesthood and temple ban than it is to continue to believe in the theories and explanations advanced in the past, whether you believe that the ban was put in place by God or not.

While most Church members that I’ve spoken to seem willing to discard the idea that the ban was the result of premortal failures, there seems to be less willingness to distance themselves from the idea that the priesthood was withheld because of the choices of supposed ancestors of black Africans—specifically Cain and Ham.  Partly, this is because there has been a narrative used to support the ban since the time of President Brigham Young that Cain was cursed as pertaining to the priesthood and marked with dark skin, that his descendants bore both the curse and the mark, and that the descendants of Ham were a continuation of Cain’s lineage and that those descendants are black Africans.  Three separate stories in the scriptures are blended in this narrative—Cain’s story in Genesis 4, Ham and Canaan’s story in Genesis 9, and Pharaoh’s story in the Book of Abraham 1—giving the narrative the veneer of scriptural authority.  For example, in the current version of the Church’s manual for Institute classes about the Old Testament, there is the statement that: “Although Ham himself had the right to the priesthood, Canaan, his son, did not. Ham had married Egyptus, a descendant of Cain (Abraham 1:21–24), and so his sons were denied the priesthood.”[5]  While this is in a current Church manual, we need to keep in mind the incident earlier this year where a quote with outdated racial commentary was carried over from the current Book of Mormon Institute manual into the Come, Follow Me manual.  Since then, the manual was changed in the digital edition and Elder Gary Stevenson said that: “We’re asking our members to disregard the paragraph in the printed manual,” calling it an “error.”[6]  This incident underscores the fact that old ways of understanding some of the racialized stories in the scriptures are being reconsidered and that many of the race-related statements in Church manuals published prior to 2013 are being considered outdated.  We need to parse the three stories of Cain, Ham/Canaan, and Pharaoh, examining them closely to consider what bearing they each do and do not have on the priesthood ban.  The remainder of this post will focus on the story of Cain, while a subsequent post will focus on the more complicated issue of Ham, Canaan, and Pharaoh.

Cain is important to the priesthood ban because from very early on, Brigham Young began to refer to his story as a rationale for the ban’s existence.  While Joseph Smith spoke about lineage and connections to Cain as part of his justifications for slavery’s existence, President Young took the idea further, applying it to the priesthood as well as to slavery.  Brigham Young’s earliest known recorded statement on the priesthood ban came in 1849, when he said:

The curse remained upon them because Cain cut off the lives [sic] of Abel, to prevent him and his posterity getting ascendency over Cain and his generations, and to get the lead himself, his own offering was not being accepted of God, while Abel’s was. But the Lord cursed Cain’s seed with blackness and prohibited them the priesthood, that Abel and his progeny might yet come forward, and have their dominion, place, and blessings in their proper relationship with Cain and his race in the world to come.[7]

Brigham Young seems to have believed that the ability to have descendants and to pass the priesthood on to those descendants was paramount. He believed Cain was attempting to prevent Abel from being able to do, ensuring that Cain and his line would have greater power and authority. In this understanding of the narrative, Cain’s efforts backfired, and he and his descendants were barred from the priesthood until all of Abel’s descendants received the priesthood.  President Young was consistent in expressing this belief or variations thereon, along with his belief that individuals of black African ancestry were descendants of Cain, throughout his lifetime in association with the ban, and many other Church leaders followed his lead in this regard.[8]

How does Brigham Young’s version of the story of Cain compare with what is found in the scriptures?  The story of Cain is found in Genesis 4 and elaborated on in the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible (as is shown in Moses 5).  The full text of the story, as presented in the Bible is as follows:

In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel for his part brought of the firstlings of his flock, their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell. The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.”

Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let us go out to the field.” And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him. Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” And the Lord said, “What have you done? Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground! And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you till the ground, it will no longer yield to you its strength; you will be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.” Cain said to the Lord, “My punishment is greater than I can bear! Today you have driven me away from the soil, and I shall be hidden from your face; I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and anyone who meets me may kill me.” Then the Lord said to him, “Not so! Whoever kills Cain will suffer a sevenfold vengeance.” And the Lord put a mark on Cain, so that no one who came upon him would kill him. Then Cain went away from the presence of the Lord, and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden.[9]

The story in this chapter is expanded a bit in the Joseph Smith translation, introducing elements of Cain swearing an oath to Satan and a warning from God that if Cain goes forward with his plan “thou shalt be the father of his lies; thou shalt be called Perdition … and it shall be said in time to come—That these abominations were had from Cain,” but otherwise, the essential elements relevant to this discussion are the same as the chapter in the Bible.[10]

There are few absences to note here.  First, there is no mention of priesthood or Cain and all his descendants being cut off from the priesthood.  The curse is specifically focused on Cain no longer being able to grow crops, forcing him to live a nomadic lifestyle.  There is a mark placed on him to preserve his life from retribution against his fratricidal actions, but there is no indication of what this mark might be or that it also applied to his descendants.  These are significant gaps between the Biblical record and justifications given for the priesthood ban.

The story became important later on in Judeo-Christian history as part of the narratives used to dehumanize Africans and justify enslaving them.  It was a long time after the original text was written that a Syriac translation of the Hebrew Bible added a gloss to the text in which the mark was said to be dark skin.[11]  As historian Diarmaid MacCulloch observed:

Other Christians followed a different line in biblical interpretation not found in any Western Bible, but traceable right back to a reading in the Syriac Peshitta version of the story of Cain in Genesis 4.1– 16: according to this Syriac take on the biblical text, black people actually descended from Cain because when God had punished Cain for killing his brother Abel, the ‘mark’ he gave the murderer was to blacken his skin. It was reasonable to suppose that this applied to all Cain’s descendants.[12]

The Christians that MacCulloch spoke of in quote above were those Christians from Portugal and Spain who were involved in enslaving Africans.  This idea that the punishment for Cain’s sin was the origin of the dark skin of African peoples became part of the justifications for race-based enslavement, which was also used in the trans-Atlantic slave trade of the British Empire and the United States of America.  As is noted in the Gospel Topics essay on race and the priesthood:

The justifications for this [priesthood] restriction echoed the widespread ideas about racial inferiority that had been used to argue for the legalization of black “servitude” in the Territory of Utah.  According to one view, which had been promulgated in the United States from at least the 1730s, blacks descended from the same lineage as the biblical Cain, who slew his brother Abel. Those who accepted this view believed that God’s ‘curse’ on Cain was the mark of a dark skin.[13]

Thus, Brigham Young and other early Church members were acquainted with the idea of Blacks being descendants of Cain through their culture’s justifications for enslaving human beings and they seem to have drawn on those justifications in explaining the priesthood and temple ban.

Along with the problem that a priesthood restriction is never mentioned in the scriptures in connection with Cain, there is also the theological issue of why similar restrictions were not put in place for similar actions by other individuals.  As Alma Allred wrote: “If the priesthood was withheld from Africans because their ancestor was a murderer, why were King David’s descendants allowed the priesthood, for he too was a murderer? Why are not the white sons of murderers kept from the priesthood?”[14]  Short of some variation of the bizarre occult explanations that D. Michael Quinn suggests may have influenced early Church members’ beliefs (things along the lines of the idea that Cain was the origin of sorcery and secret combinations as a counterfeit to priesthood knowledge, which he passed on to his descendants, thus disqualifying them from the true priesthood) there aren’t a lot of explanations I’ve seen as to why Cain was punished more severely than other murderers.[15]  Even those explanations don’t make sense to apply to people of black African ancestry and I doubt Latter-day Saints today would consider those ideas to be part of their religious beliefs.

Aside from the issue of priesthood not being mentioned in the accounts of Cain’s story and the problem of inconsistent punishments for the same crime, there is also the problem that there is no documented means by which Cain’s descendants survived the flood, if we take the story of Noah literally.  We don’t know much about the women in Noah’s genealogy or the women that he and his sons married.  All that is stated in the Bible is Noah’s male lineage back to Adam through Seth.  The Book of Abraham adds that in Abraham’s time the Pharaoh was “a descendant from the loins of Ham, and was a partaker of the blood of the Canaanites by birth” and that “from this descent sprang all the Egyptians, and thus the blood of the Canaanites was preserved in the land” (Abraham 1:21-22).  It is also noted that Ham’s daughter was also “the daughter of Egyptus” and that “from Ham, sprang that race which preserved the curse in the land” (Abraham 1:23-24).  It is not clear, however, what the curse referred to is—is it the one placed on Cain, the one placed on Canaan, the one placed on a separate people of Canaan in Enoch’s time (discussed below), or something else entirely?  The later reference to Pharaoh being “cursed … as pertaining to the Priesthood” in the Book of Abraham presents Noah as the person giving the curse, which would indicate that any sort of priesthood ban (if it is to be understood that way) originated after the flood (and thus long after Cain had murdered Abel).  Further, any belief that the curse was the one placed on Cain is made by way of assumption rather than what is explicitly stated, since the word Cain does not even appear in the Book of Abraham.

It should also be noted here that the standard linguistic style of marking descendants of someone is to add -ite to the end of the person’s name.  Thus, a descendant of Cain would be known as a Cainite (or, as some scholars have suggested, Kenite),[16] not a Canaanite, which designates a descendant of Canaan rather than Cain.  While the names Canaan and Cain sound similar in English, they are distinct names and the -ite forms refer to distinct groups.  The lineage of Pharaoh and the Egyptians as given in the Book of Abraham, thus, is not directly connected to Cain, as is suggested in the Church’s Old Testament manual, but instead to Canaan or the people of Canaan.

There are two separate groups in our scriptures that are referred to as Canaanites.  The best-known group is composed of the descendants of Ham’s son Canaan, who went on to settle in the Levant, later to face conquest by the House of Israel.  The other is a group found in Joseph Smith’s revision to the Bible, in the section about Enoch.  In the narrative, Enoch prophesies that this people of Canaan “shall go forth in battle array against the people of Shum, and shall slay them that they shall utterly be destroyed.”  For this act of genocide, Enoch prophesied that “the Lord shall curse the land with much heat, and the barrenness thereof shall go forth forever; and there was a blackness came upon all the children of Canaan” (Moses 7:7-8).  Again, if we believe the idea that Cain and his descendants were marked with black skin, this story would emphasize that the people of Canaan and the seed of Cain were two separate peoples—it would be redundant for “a blackness” come upon “all the children of Canaan” during or after Enoch’s time if they were already has blackness because of a mark that was in place as part of Cain’s punishment.  Whether the blood of the Canaanites spoken of in the Book of Abraham is connected to the people of Canaan in Enoch’s story or Canaan, the son of Ham, there is not an explicit link to Cain and his seed.

Some people may object to what I’ve reasoned here with the idea that President Brigham Young filled in the gaps that I’ve pointed out with prophetic insight.  My response is that if we are cautious about accepting other aspects of Brigham Young’s doctrinal teachings, we should probably also be cautious about accepting his statements about Cain.  Even in the immediate aftermath of his life, some Church leaders felt that “in the promulgation of doctrine he took liberties beyond those to which he was legitimately entitled.”[17]  In more recent times, the Church has explicitly rejected his belief that Adam is our God and his ideas about blood atonement.[18]    In fact, the Gospel Topics essay on “Race and the Priesthood” can reasonably be understood to be the Church’s repudiation of Brigham Young’s beliefs about Cain, with its efforts to contextualize his statements in the racist discourse of 19th century America and its disavowal of “theories advanced in the past that black skin is a sign of divine disfavor or curse.”  While there is a lot we can and should respect about President Brigham Young and what he said and did as president of the Church, it seems to me that it is the best course to regard Brigham Young’s statements about Cain as doctrinal speculations based on the beliefs he learned from his culture and that those beliefs are not binding on us today or supported by the scriptures.  As the late scholar Armand L. Mauss wrote:

Much of the conventional “explanation” for the priesthood restriction was simply borrowed from the racist heritage of nineteenth-century Europe and America, especially from the justifications for slavery used in the ante-bellum South. Understandable—even forgivable—as such a resort might have been for our LDS ancestors, it is neither understandable nor forgivable in the twenty-first century. It is an unnecessary burden of misplaced apologetics that has been imposed by our history upon the universal and global aspirations of the Church. Until we dispense with this explanation once and for all, it will continue to encumber the efforts of today’s Church leaders and public affairs spokespersons to convince the world, and especially the black people of North America, that the Church is for all God’s children.[19]

To wrap things up, it is my belief that the idea of tracing the priesthood and temple ban back to the story of Cain murdering Abel doesn’t sustain scrutiny.  There is no mention in the scriptures of the curse placed on Cain involving the priesthood and there is also no clear link between Cain and Ham or modern people of black African ancestry.  Whether you believe that God was responsible for instituting the priesthood and temple ban or not, we are better off embracing the idea that God has given no explanation for the ban than we are perpetuating the idea that God cursed Cain to not hold the priesthood, that all black Africans are Cain’s descendants, and that they bore the curse of Cain up until 1978.

 

Footnotes and Further Reading:

[1] Eugene England, “The Mormon Cross,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 8, no. 1, 83-84.

[2] Dallin H. Oaks cited in “Apostles Talk about Reasons for Lifting Ban,” Daily Herald, Provo, Utah [5 June 1988]: 21 [Associated Press]; reproduced with commentary in Dallin H. Oaks, Life’s Lessons Learned: Personal Reflections [Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Co., 2011], 68-69.

[3] http://www.pbs.org/mormons/interviews/holland.html

[4] https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/gospel-topics-essays/race-and-the-priesthood?lang=eng, accessed 7/29/2020.

[5] Old Testament Student Manual Genesis-2 Samuel, 3rd ed. (SLC: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1980, 1981, 2003), 57, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/old-testament-student-manual-genesis-2-samuel/genesis-4-11-the-patriarchs?lang=eng&clang=pes&_r=1.

[6] See Ben Spackman, “Inerrancy among Church Employees about Church Materials,” Ben Spackman: Historian of Religion, Science, and Biblical Interpretation, 22 January 2020, https://benspackman.com/2020/01/22/inerrancy-among-si-about-church-materials/ for a discussion of this incident.  See also the current Institute manual for the Book of Mormon and Sean Walker, “We are all part of the same divine familiy,” KSL.com 20 January 2020.

[7] Manuscript History of the Church, 13 Feb. 1849, LDS Church Archives.

[8] See, for example, Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, Vol. 4, p.97, Journal of Discourses 2:142-43 (3 Dec. 1854), 2:184 (18 Feb. 1855), 7:290-91 (9 Oct. 1859), 11:272 (19 Aug. 1866); May 4, 1855, New York Herald, p. 8; Horace Greeley, An Overland Journey from New York to San Francisco in the Summer of 1859, (New York, H. H. Bancroft and Co., 1860), pp. 211-12; Matthias Cowley, Wilford Woodruff (Salt Lake City, The Deseret News Press, 1909), p. 351.

[9] Genesis 4:3-16, NRSV.

[10] Moses 5:24-25 and 29.  Compare to https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/old-testament-revision-2/17 and https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/old-testament-revision-1/11.

[11] It should be noted here this idea is also suggested by an insertion in the Joseph Smith translation of the Bible.  As Joseph Smith elaborated on the story of Enoch, it is noted that outside of the community called Zion, Enoch saw that the residue of the people “were a mixture of all the seed of Adam save it was the seed of Cain, for the seed of Cain were black, and had not place among them” (Moses 7:22).

[12] MacCulloch, Diarmaid. Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years (p. 868). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[13] https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/gospel-topics-essays/race-and-the-priesthood?lang=eng, accessed 7/29/2020.

[14] Alma Allred, “The Traditions of Their Fathers: Myth versus Reality in LDS Scriptural Writings,” in Black and Mormon, ed. Darron Smith and Newell G. Bringhurst (p. 42). University of Illinois Press. Kindle Edition.

[15] D. Michael Quinn, Early Mormonism and the Magic World View (Salt Lake City, Utah: Signature Books, 1987), 167, 177, 179; 1998 ed., 221, 222.

[16] The Kenites were a nomadic group known for their skill as coppersmiths and metalworkers that were possibly connected to the Midianites at first, but eventually settled among the tribe of Judah.  Some Biblical scholars have suggested that the story of Cain was originally from another context (one not associated with the creation and early history of humanity) and that he was understood to be the eponymous ancestor of the Kenites.  See, for example, The New Oxford Annotated Bible, New Revised Stand Version with the Apocrypha, Fully Revised Fourth Edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 16-17.

[17] George Q. Cannon Journal, 29 August 1877, https://www.churchhistorianspress.org/george-q-cannon/1870s/1877/08-1877?lang=eng.

[18] For the former, see, for one of several possible examples, Spencer W. Kimball, “Our Own Liahona,” Ensign (November 1976), 77, which states that “We warn you against the dissemination of doctrines which are not according to the Scriptures and which are alleged to have been taught by some of the General Authorities of past generations. Such, for instance, is the Adam-God theory. We denounce that theory and hope that everyone will be cautioned against this and other kinds of false doctrine.” See also Wilford Woodruff’s statement in The Latter-day Saint Millennial Star 57:23 (6 June 1895):355-56.  For the latter doctrine, see “Mormon church statement on blood atonement,” Deseret News, 18 June 2010 (https://www.deseret.com/2010/6/18/20122138/mormon-church-statement-on-blood-atonement), which states that: “So-called ‘blood atonement,’ by which individuals would be required to shed their own blood to pay for their sins, is not a doctrine of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  We believe in and teach the infinite and all-encompassing atonement of Jesus Christ, which makes forgiveness of sin and salvation possible for all people.”

[19]  Armand L. Mauss, “Dispelling the Curse of Cain, Or How to Explain the Old Priesthood Ban Without Looking Ridiculous,” Sunstone October 2004, pp. 56-61, https://www.sunstonemagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/sbi/articles/134-56-61.pdf.

44 comments for “Reconsidering the Curse of Cain

  1. Wondering
    August 3, 2020 at 6:31 am

    Thanks for laying this out with the notes and links, some of which were new to me, though their points were not..

  2. August 3, 2020 at 10:03 am

    After having read “Religion of a Different Color” I’m persuaded that the Priesthood ban came as part of the negotiation with the US Senate to let Utah become a state. The Senate was afraid that Mormons would conduct secret mixed race marriages in their temples, so Brigham Young had to come up with a reason why they wouldn’t; and used the justification for slavery to sell it to the Senate.

  3. August 3, 2020 at 11:50 am

    Chad, are you arguing for OT literalism here? That the Book of Genesis should be taken literally? That OT timeline is accurate? That biblical prophets lived 1,000 years? Etc.

    If you are not, what is point of this post? The real question here is who was responsible for the Priesthood ban. And I’m not throwing God under the bus. It was BY and subsequent Presidents of the Church until Kimball who were responsible. jader3rd that might be an excuse for 19th century Presidents, but not for 20th-century Presidents who went along with it. There is no way out of this predicament without the leadership admitting past Presidential (leadership) error and apologizing.

    And we are still stuck with the racism in the BoM.

  4. Wondering
    August 3, 2020 at 12:20 pm

    Roger, I think the real question in Chad’s post is not the ultimate question of responsibility for the ban, but rather the question whether the canonized scriptures in fact support BY’s and many of his successors’ narrative of the reason.
    I agree that we are stuck with the racism of several of the prophets reported in the BoM. But that doesn’t require believing that those prophets were culture or bias free or even right about their racists statements any more than BY was. The BoM can be read as a whole as showing that such Nephite racism led to the destruction of the Nephite society and was a no-good, very bad thing. The message of the book doesn’t have to be the same as the message of any one character in the book, any more than Shakespeare must be believed to have personally subscribed to every statement he put in the mouth of each or any one of his characters. Of course, that reading is not the most common reading and it does, indeed, require acknowledging prophets in error.

  5. Chad Nielsen
    August 3, 2020 at 12:24 pm

    Wondering, glad to be able to share.

    jader3rd, I feel like W. Paul Reeves’s book is one of the most important ones to read on the topic, and I really appreciated how much contextualization there was in “Religion of a Different Color”. I’m glad Reeves shared a super distilled version of his research recently online to read and think through as well (https://faithmatters.org/making-sense-of-the-churchs-history-on-race/).

    Rogerdhansen, I’m arguing that whether you believe in the priesthood ban or not and whether you believe in Biblical literalism or not, the idea that the priesthood ban originated with God’s curse on Cain is not sustainable and should not be perpetuated. That is the whole point of this post. I’ve heard the idea suggested too often still and wanted to point out that even in the most literalist approach to our scriptures, it doesn’t make sense. I tried to side-step the issues of how literal to take the events of Genesis or who the responsibility for the priesthood ban rests on in order to make that point across the broadest spectrum of readers within the Church.

  6. Ryan Mullen
    August 3, 2020 at 12:26 pm

    Chad, thanks for the OP. This a careful, well-researched examination of the scriptural evidence for linking the curse of Cain and the LDS temple and priesthood restriction. I fully agree with your conclusion that “we are better off embracing the idea that God has given no explanation for the ban”, with the caveat that we remember that Brigham Young was in no way uncertain about why he instituted the ban. He repeatedly cited the curse of Cain as justification for the ban and, as far as I’m aware, never once stated God instructed him to ban black Africans from the temple and priesthood but withheld the reason why.

    jader3rd, why was the senate afraid (or why did Mormons think the senate was afraid) Mormons were performing mixed-race marriages? Simply because sealings were/are not open to the public?

  7. Kevin Christensen
    August 3, 2020 at 12:27 pm

    Any discussion of the LDS historical interpretations of the curse on Canaan should consider this review by Stirling Adams.

    https://byustudies.byu.edu/content/curse-ham-race-and-slavery-early-judaism-christianity-and-islam-noahs-curse-biblical

    The Abstract follows:

    DAVID M. GOLDENBERG. The Curse of Ham: Race and Slavery in Early Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003.

    STEPHEN R. HAYNES. Noah’s Curse: The Biblical Justification of American Slavery. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

    Two recent books explore how the Genesis account of Noah cursing his grandson Canaan came to be used as a primary justification for enslaving black Africans. In doing so, the books add to the understanding of how this and other biblical stories were previously viewed within Mormonism as support for race-based classifications. Genesis tells of Ham finding his father Noah drunk and uncovered in his tent. Ham informs his brothers Shem and Japheth. They, walking backward so as not to see their father’s nakedness, cover Noah with a garment. After Noah awakes from his drunkenness, he curses—not Ham, and not himself—but Ham’s son Canaan by pronouncing: “Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren” (see Genesis 9:20–27). There is no reference to dark skin, to any skin color, or to Africa, and Noah does not say the curse applies to Canaan’s descendants. Yet this story, as it was amplified and changed in extrabiblical interpretations, became the ideological cornerstone used to justify the slavery of black Africans thousands of years afterwards.

    Back in 1978, in Abraham in Egypt, Nibley pointed out that in the Book of Abraham, there is no discussion of race. Rather, he shows, “what was denied to Pharoh was a claim to a patriarchal priesthood through a matriarchal line,” and that historically, this was the actual case, where Pharoh’s authority was traced through the Matriarchal line.

    And an essential read for Book of Mormon issues is Ethan Sproat, “Skins as Garments in the Book of Mormon: A Textual Exegesis”

    https://scholarsarchive.byu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1572&context=jbms

    He starts with the observation of Alma 3:5-6, in the most extensive discussion of the curse, noting that all previous commentaries fail to notice that the line in verse 6, “the skins of the Lamanites were dark” calls back to verse 5, “and they were naked, save it were the skin which was girded about their loins.” Then go through the Book of Mormon and notice that the many passages about clean and filthy garments are all used in exactly the same context and for exactly the same purpose as the far fewer passages about dark skins. Noice that the phrase “skin of blackness” occurs exactly once, by Nephi, who was the only Book of Mormon writer with the Ancient Near Eastern background to use the Ancient Near Eastern expression, that had to do with the morality of lifestyle, rather than race. It is symbolism related to covenants and priesthood garments. As Tevye explained about his wearing of a prayer shawl, “Because of our traditions, each of us knows who he is, and who God expects him to be.” And Nephi explained that we can’t understand the things of the Jews like unto the, save it be we are taught, and that means, taught away from 19th century common places, and back to original Ancient Near Eastern thinking.

  8. Chad Nielsen
    August 3, 2020 at 12:57 pm

    Ryan, in response to your question towards jader3rd, one of the central ideas of Reeves’s book that he referenced is that the dominant forces in American society, in general, was openly opposed to mixed racial marriages and other cross-racial interactions that might undermine white supremacy. Mormonism, with its scriptures proclaiming that “all are alike unto God,” baptizing and ordaining of Blacks from very early on, and discussions about joining with Native Americans to build Zion together (as prophesied in the Book of Mormon) were seen as way too open to mingling with people of color. This combined with “un-American” behavior like theocracy, polygamy, etc. lead to a perception of Latter-day Saints as not being properly white. That may have included concerns about cross-racial marriages being performed in the temples (secretly or otherwise), though there are a lot of pieces to the picture. Reeves then argues that Latter-day Saints began to do things that allowed them to gain the social currency that comes with being viewed as white in American society (and that the priesthood and temple ban was a part of that process). I recommend reading the following online article for a brief version of his work (https://faithmatters.org/making-sense-of-the-churchs-history-on-race/). Now, as far as secret sealings, I’ll leave that up to jader3rd to give more reasons as to why that particular idea stands out to him.

    Kevin, thanks for sharing those resources. The book that is reviewed by Stirling Adams is an important read on the subject, if you can get your hands on it. As I mentioned in the post itself, I’ll be doing a follow-up to this focusing more on discussing the Book of Abraham and the story of Ham/Canaan that will draw more on some of those things.

  9. Ben S
    August 3, 2020 at 2:57 pm

    Two short points- First, in Hebrew there’s no question that the Kenites are Cain-ites, and Cain has nothing to do with Canaan. How the English spellings and pronounciation came about, I couldn’t say, but the Hebrew is clear: QYN (Cain) and Kenite (QYN-Y) vs. Caanan (KN’N) and Caananite (KN’N-Y).

    Second, I’ve used that story of England and Joseph Fielding Smith in a different context. (It’s also found in the Kimball biography), namely, to talk about the power and pitfalls of tradition.- The Philosophies of Men, Mingled with Monopoly.
    https://benspackman.com/2020/05/04/the-philosophies-of-men-mingled-with-monopoly/

  10. SDS
    August 3, 2020 at 3:07 pm

    Thanks for a well-researched and informative post, as usual.

    The post took me back to my mission experiences in Brazil, in the early 1970s. Race and the priesthood ban were potentially explosive issues there, and so we were supposed to give a “lineage lesson” to all investigators before baptism. But there was no prescribed lesson; we were just supposed to make one up on our own. (Kind of a scary thought: 19- and 20- years making up lessons to explain something like this.)

    Anyway, probably the most common lessons did adopt some sort of “not valiant in the pre-existence” theme. I didn’t like that approach, so I devised a lesson that started by reading a scripture with Jesus telling his disciples to go only to the Jews; later he sent them to the Gentiles as well. Why? I would ask. Was it because the Gentiles were less faithful or worthy? If so, Jesus never said that. He just had his own timetable; we don’t necessarily know why. Likewise . . . etc.

    I was sometimes told by other elders that this approach wouldn’t work because it didn’t really give any sort of explanation. But so far as I could tell it worked well enough. And I still think that, ultimately, “the Lord has his timetable and we may not understand it” is where I would come down. (Although I’m very thankful that we don’t have to deal with that issue on an ongoing basis.)

  11. Chad Nielsen
    August 3, 2020 at 3:44 pm

    Thanks for that info Ben S., that’s really good to know. Also, I really appreciated your post that you mentioned. It could easily be said that my post here is just a specific example of the topic you discuss there.

    SDS, it would seem that your approach to the topic on your mission has been shown to be the better one by the intervening 50 years. Also, I miss your thought-provoking and interesting posts.

  12. Ryan Mullen
    August 3, 2020 at 5:14 pm

    Thanks, Chad. I have Reeve’s book on my reading list, but haven’t quite got there yet.

    SDS, one key difference between Gentile conversion in the early Christian communities and black exclusion from LDS temples and priesthood is that early Christianity wrestled with Gentile conversion within the generation, and landed on the side of inclusion. The Jerusalem council is dated to approximately 50 CE, and Gentiles were being baptized for years at that point. The NT texts don’t explicitly make the distinction that modern LDSs do regarding priesthood, so we can’t compare apples to apples, but there’s at least no indication of a multi-generational policy that allowed Gentiles to be baptized but excluded them from administrative or ministerial positions. All this is to say that “the Lord has his timetable” is certainly a better answer than the curse of Cain, but it is not altogether a great one seeing as it puts the impetus of the priesthood ban back on God when, as the OP argues, God has never defended the ban.

  13. SDS
    August 3, 2020 at 5:59 pm

    Ryan: Thanks for the comment. Naturally I don’t remember after all these years exactly how my “lineage lesson” went, but probably it was based on comparing a verse like Matt. 10:5-6 (“Go not into the way of Gentiles . . . . But go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel”) with Matt. 28:19) (“Go ye therefore, and teach all nations . . . .”) In fact, I still have my Bible from back then, and I checked just now and those verses are underlined.

    Now, I think you make a good point that the parallel to the Latter-day denial and later extension of the priesthood is far from exact. The idea was just to make a general point about the Lord having timetables that we may not understand. You may also be right to suggest, if I’m understanding correctly, that the denial of the priesthood to members with African ancestry wasn’t based on any revelation at all, but was instead the result of some human mistake or misunderstanding. I’m inclined to think that myself, but with a couple of qualifications.

    First, the “mistake” hypothesis obviously wasn’t an available explanation for us as missionaries in the early 1970s. (And, to be honest, it wasn’t one that would have occurred to me then.) But second, and more generally, I tend to think that the Lord works in mysterious ways, and also that He gives us fallible mortals (even including prophets) a lot of leeway to exercise our own agency, nonetheless guiding our often misguided decisions according to His overall plan. So in that sense, I can accept the possibility of things within the Church– and not only within the Church– unfolding according to the Lord’s timetable even if He didn’t (and wouldn’t) specifically direct particular things to happen. Something can be a human mistake, I think– so that it would have been better for the thing not to have happened– and still be part of the Lord’s overall plan.

    Pretty mystical, I admit. But also, I think, very scriptural.

  14. Travis
    August 3, 2020 at 8:52 pm

    I interpret priesthood ban as a reflection of institutional racism that existed all across society.

    The institution that manages the Church struggles to differentiate between faith, belief, doctrine, and policy. Priesthood ban was a policy, not a doctrine, so it is fitting that you could find no doctrinal integrity to support the policy.

    Another problem leading to confusion about priesthood has to do with our tendency to think of it as something to possess, instead of thinking about priesthood as something that possesses.

    Scriptures speak of the priesthood as a mantle—something that rests upon, and imagery of a dove gently descending from above was once used to describe the charismatic manifestation of priesthood and kingship—power and authority to rule. Scripture shows the evidence of this manifestation as Wisdom, or the Holy Spirit: he or she whom the Spirit possesses, the mantle of power and authority falls upon.

    In other words, the Holy Spirit is the manifestation of the “power and authority” of priesthood. Without the Spirit, there is no priesthood. A ban on priesthood therefore constitutes a ban on the Spirit, which is absurd… unless—unless the context of priesthood is mistakenly independent of the Holy Spirit—

    A priesthood without Wisdom, without the Holy Spirit, isn’t priesthood: it’s priestcraft.

  15. Taiwan Missionary
    August 3, 2020 at 9:18 pm

    I greatly enjoyed Chad Nielsen’s post and look forward to more. Thank you! The comments were also helpful.

    I am late to the comments, so I will merely say that there are advantages to a church not having a fully formed theology or set of teachings. One advantage is that this allows the Church to discard teachings that were once regarded as doctrine, but which have since become problematic, as “practice” that needs to be changed.

    I say this as a believing Mormon, and not cynically. This is an invaluable safety valve. The question for Church leaders is how often to use that safety valve, and on which issues. I have no problem with the Lord “allowing” His believers to believe wrong things, and then, at a later time, realize the error, and discard mistaken beliefs. This is how we progress; we learn by trial and error. That is why the Atonement exists. Why should a Church that claims to have restored primitive Christianity be any different? And why do we get hung up on the Church’s leaders having made mistakes in the past? They might receive revelation, but revelation and understanding the Lord’s will often takes time, and is on ongoing, unfolding process.

  16. GEOFF -AUS
    August 4, 2020 at 12:37 am

    So what I understand the post to be saying is racism was the culture of the time of BY, and the old testament explanation was also the culture of that time.

    That culture was pretty much overturned by 1950s but because of the conservative men leading the church they stuck with it for another 20+ years.

    Presently we have a list of things in the same category, opposition to gay marriage, equality for women, and our attitude to abortion, vasectomy, and obedience. etc. Most of these we justify by taking scripture out of context, or otherwise misusing it.

    What really is the problem is leaders who are too old and conservative, and not able to recieve revelation that would go against their ideology. We could have lead the world on racism, but we were dragged along kicking and sceaming, and still have articles like this trying to explain why the church persisted justifying their ideology wrongly.

    We continue with the same culture, undermining our claim of the benifits of being led by prophets. The question the post raised in my mind is can prophet be conservative, or must they be progressive. Conservative leaders justify their position by looking back. Progressive prophet would say thus sayest the lord. It would be consistent with the gospel, but not necessarily justified by scripture.

    I would expect a church led by prophets to be ahead of the curve, instead we are lagging behind.

  17. Jeffrey Walsh
    August 4, 2020 at 1:37 am

    Chad, thanks for the further discussion. But after all is “said and done” The question still remains were the Priesthood restrictions imposed by the Lord, or were they instituted by Brigham Young as your foot notes 17-18 imply?

    As you quite rightly say what our current Church Leaders are disavowing are the reasons for the restrictions put forward by former leaders not the ban itself. Also as you have made it plain, the Lord has not yet explained why the the restrictions were put in place.

    I do though take issue with the implications which some contributors make that President Brigham Young taught “false” doctrines. I would recommend that anyone who believes this should consider a couple of links.

    Eldon Watson’s essay on Adam-God in “Different Thoughts # 7 which gives what Spencer W Kimball really meant in the link to “Our Own Liahona”, and the difference between the Adam -God doctrine taught by Brigham Young and the Adam-God theory put forward by apostates.

    Also read the “Discussion on Blood-Atonement and the origin of Plural Marriage” between Joseph Fielding Smith Jnr and Richard G Evans of the then Reorganized Church. Where we find what Brigham Young really said about the “cutting the throat from ear to ear” blood atonement.

    Sorry I am not computer savvy enough to give you the links but I am sure that anyone can google them.

  18. Jeffrey Walsh
    August 4, 2020 at 1:46 am

    Sorry that should read Elden Watson.

  19. Wondering
    August 4, 2020 at 11:38 am

    Jeffrey, When Dennis Horne (at the Interpreter – google it) and Elden Watson got into it over Bruce R McConkie and the Adam-God theory, the exchange may have generated more heat than light, but it is nonetheless interesting, e.g. Watson’s story of McConkie wishing he had never written that letter to Eugene England and Horne’s story of McConkie’s office conveying to him that McConkie never retracted anything. After reading, I’m not convinced I know what BY’s or SWK’s or BRM’s final opinions on the subject were, but this all goes far beyond the scope and point of Chad’s post. As to BY it is difficult enough, given the questions about the reliability of the Journal of Discourses, to know what exactly he said, let alone what exactly he meant by it. I would still have to say that the canonized scriptures do not support the priesthood-ban-as-a-curse-on-Cain-and-his-descendants theory (or doctrine, if you prefer) even if they are in part consistent with it. Also that, if the reports of BY’s 1852 speeches to the legislature are correct, he was wrong about when the ban would be lifted (or SWK & Co. were wrong to lift it). I prefer thinking BY in error on the timing question, though his reported view of timing seems to be inextricably bound up with his reported view of the origin and reason for the ban. I imagine if I’ve got that wrong, God can straighten out my reading/thinking if and when it actually matters.

  20. Jeffrey Walsh
    August 4, 2020 at 12:14 pm

    Wondering, I would like you to read a paper I compiled on Brigham Young’s Adam-God doctrine back in 1992 if you would be interested. If so could you give me an email address so I could send you a message and attach the paper to, rather than continue this on this blog. My email address is [email protected]

  21. August 4, 2020 at 11:25 pm

    Chad, I’d like to say thank you for the source of the Eugene England quote. I know that I had heard it before, but didn’t have a source.
    It looks like I’ll have to re-read “Religion of a Different Color” to find why I recall it mentioning mixed race marriages being an issue.

  22. jonovitch
    August 4, 2020 at 11:30 pm

    This is a great write-up. Two thoughts I had while reading.

    1. If we don’t believe the ban was from God, what do we make of the story about David O. Mckay that after his repeated inquiries, God basically told him “not in your lifetime, so stop asking.” I believe that story came from his biography printed a few years back but alas I have no sources right now so please forgive me if I’m wrong. Would this be a case of, “you made your bed so now you have to lie in it”? Or maybe a case of “the rest of the world hasn’t caught up yet, so you’ll just have to wait”?

    2. The church seems to get a lot of flack that it took all the way until 1978 to change its mind. Usually this jab is couched in the argument that the rest of the world had seen the light so many years earlier and the church was late in catching up.

    What seems to be missing from that argument though is that the rest of the world was in upheaval in the late 1960s and it didn’t just magically resolve and everyone except those darn Mormons was suddenly anti-racist by the early 1970s (which btw is so much earlier than 1978). In some areas, race issues lingered for decades (even through today).

    And yet in 1978, the Church not only changed its policy, it turned on a dime, made the change literally overnight, effective immediately, for the entire church worldwide, and it hasn’t looked back since.

    From that perspective, it appears to be the fastest, most widely adopted and quickly accepted and instituted organizational change I can think of (even more than two-hour church!). Any conversation about the priesthood policy is incomplete without recognizing this fact, which in itself is a miracle.

  23. Chad Nielsen
    August 5, 2020 at 8:08 am

    Jeffrey, I’ll have to look into those resources when I have the chance (I’m a bit slammed with stuff this week in general, so it may be a few days). Thank you for sharing them. As far as the “when all is said and done”, the ultimate question, that is the big, tough question that is very difficult to resolve in a straightforward manner. I see many of the historical arguments about the origins of the ban being enacted by a combination of racism and (later on) respect for previous prophetic authority as the origin of the policy as being convincing. Part of that does include what Ryan Mullen pointed out above–Brigham Young was pretty clear as to the reasons he put the ban in place. If those reasons don’t hold water or are disowned by the Church today, that would indicate that his reasoning for instituting the ban was flawed (with the President Oaks-ish response to that being that we cannot tell whether he was putting reason to something he was told to do or those reasons led him to do it). Yet, there are things that give me pause in wholeheartedly embracing the idea that the ban was purely a human thing (it’s something that I am still wrestling with and haven’t fully resolved or come to a decision on–that’s part of why I research and write about it).

    jonovitch, you bring up one of those points that makes it difficult, as a believing member, to totally embrace the idea that the ban was of human origin. The source for the story of David O. McKay praying and being told “not yet” was from Gregory Prince’s interviews with people who knew President McKay and was included in his and Wm. Wright’s biography David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism. There is also a reference to Harold B. Lee having a similar experience as president of the Church in one of Leonard J. Arrington’s autobiographies. There are several possibilities of what happened in these stories, if you want to approach them through the lens of the ban being of human origin. The two you brought up (“you made your bed so now you have to lie in it” or maybe a case of “the rest of the world hasn’t caught up yet, so you’ll just have to wait”) are some. There’s also the question of source material (all of them are late, second-hand accounts, which means they’re less reliable). Armand Mauss, in the article I cited in the OP above, suggested that it wasn’t so much as the rest of the world hadn’t caught up as it was the rest of the apostles who hadn’t caught up (as I remember, Harold B. Lee once said during McKay’s presidency that the ban wouldn’t be lifted in his lifetime if he had a say in it, and had several other apostles that seem to have agreed with him). President Kimball worked hard to bring people around to the idea of lifting the ban before they prayed for confirmation as a quorum in 1978. So, that’s another possibility. I also don’t know if you remember that time a couple years ago where a lot of us got faked out by someone making it look like President Nelson had apologized for the ban, but the way that person dealt with it was to say that President McKay and President Lee simply failed to correctly discern God’s will on the matter. Ultimately, it’s one of those tough questions that contribute to how messy and difficult it is to approach the subject.

  24. Wondering
    August 5, 2020 at 8:31 am

    Chad, There is additional possible support for the idea that it may have been that the apostles hadn’t caught up. As reported in the SLTrib from the “unabridged”/CD version of Ed Kimball’s book: “Spencer Kimball told one interviewer before the change, ‘I don’t know that I should be the one doing this, but if I don’t, my successor [Ezra Taft Benson] won’t.’ ” https://archive.sltrib.com/story.php?ref=/lds/ci_14287116

  25. Jeffrey Walsh
    August 6, 2020 at 3:13 am

    .

    Chad, thanks for making your uncertain position on this clear. My last word on this is certainly clear. My position rests on the testimony I received 56 years ago, that this Church was restored and led by Jesus Christ. He restored His Church through Joseph Smith, and has been revealing His will to the Prophets He has called since that time. He has assured us that He will not allow any President of His Church to lead the Church astray, including Brigham Young. We are living in the last days, in fact I believe that we are living in the predicted times of the fulfilling of the Wheat and Tares prophecy. Satan I am sure knows that he has not much time left. His main weapon is ” Believe it not”. He is the one who teaches the philosophies of men mingled with scripture. One day in the not too distant future, I believe, we all will have to stand before the leaders of this last dispensation and I do not want to be someone who cast doubt on their integrity. Jeff Walsh.

  26. JR
    August 6, 2020 at 6:23 am

    Integrity does not seem to include never being mistaken.

    The not-leading-the-Church-astray speech of President Woodruff may need to be understood in its context. It also doesn’t seem to me to mean never-being-mistaken. Instead, it seems to mean that earlier leaders who taught that polygamous marriage was essential to exaltation were mistaken. [“The only men who become Gods, even the Sons of God, are those who enter into polygamy. Others attain unto a glory and may even be permitted to come into the presence of the Father and the Son; but they cannot reign as kings in glory, because they had blessings offered unto them, and they refused to accept them.” Journal of Discourses, Vol.11, p.268 – p.269, Brigham Young, August 19, 1866]

    “[S]tand before the leaders of this last dispensation” is a new concept to me after actively participating in Church for nearly 70 years. As far as I can tell, the focus of Revelation and of the Book of Mormon on judgment is on standing before God or the Lamb of God, not the leaders of the last dispensation. Oh, well, that wouldn’t be the first or only thing I’ve missed.

    I’ve been mistaken often enough that I do not wish to impugn anyone’s integrity on the basis of what may just be a mistake or mistaken understanding. Others may understand “integrity” differently.

  27. Mike
    August 6, 2020 at 10:08 am

    Really great article. More and more every year I think my understanding of what we mean when we say the Lord leads his Church changes. I think most LDS interpret that as meaning that the Lord tells his prophets and priesthood holders what do do and that’s how he governs his Church. I take the Lord at his word when he told the ancient apostles that whatever they would would bound or loose on earth would be done in heaven. In other words, I think the Lord is perfectly willing to sit back and if Brigham Young wants to ban blacks and make a fool of himself in that regard, then that’s fine, done. Authority is not lost to error because to error is human after all. Clearly there are lines that I’m sure the Lord would not tolerate being crossed by his agents, but since He is eternal, he knows they won’t cross those lines before they are called. I think we are much more left to work things out on our own than we often teach.

  28. Ryan Mullen
    August 6, 2020 at 12:16 pm

    jonovitch,

    Regarding David O McKay, the possibility that God answered “the rest of the world hasn’t caught up yet, so you’ll just have to wait” is particularly problematic. That is, in effect, God saying that He prioritizes not making white people uncomfortable over eliminating discrimination of and prejudice toward our black brothers and sisters. I hope it’s obvious why that’s not a particularly healing context for teaching the rising generation about the end of the priesthood ban.

    Rather, from reading Ed Kimball’s several biographies of his father, it is apparent just how much work SWK had to do to get himself (and by extension the Q12 and GAs) mentally and spiritually prepared to receive the 1978 revelation. I just don’t see that DOM’s efforts rise to that same level. You can read that as a knock against DOM or as praise for SWK (I prefer the latter), but either way it makes the man asking the question the deciding factor rather than framing God as changing his mind about black people in 1978.

  29. Jeffrey Walsh
    August 7, 2020 at 9:10 am

    Although I did say in my last comment that it would be my last word, I feel I must respond to JR. I would refer JR an anyone else to a talk given on 9 Oct 1859 by Brigham Young in what could very well be the October 1859 Conference of the Church. He said:-

    “Joseph Smith holds the keys of this last dispensation, and is now engaged behind the vail in the great work of the last days. I can tell our beloved brother Christians who have slain the prophets and butchered and otherwise have caused the deaths of thousands of Latter-day Saints, the priests who have thanked God in their prayers and thanksgivings from the pulpit and their brothers and sisters in their closets, who have thanked God, thinking that the Latter-day Saints were wasted away something that will no doubt mortify them–,something that, to say the least, is a matter of deep regret to them—namely, that no man or women in this dispensation will ever enter into the kingdom of God without the consent of Joseph Smith. From the day that the Priesthood was taken away from the earth to the winding-up scene of all things, every man and women must have the certificate of Joseph Smith junior, as a passport to their entrance into the mansion where God and Christ are—I with you and you with me. I cannot go there without his consent. He holds the keys of that kingdom for the last dispensation—the key to rule in the spirit-world, and he rules there triumphantly, for he gained full power and a glorious victory over the power of Satan while he was yet in the flesh, and was a martyr to his religion and to the name of Christ, which gives him a most perfect victory in the spirit-world.”. JofD vol7 p 282-291.( I would suggest reading the whole sermon as it also touches on the subject of this post.)

    The above sounds very much like a temple-reccomend interview to me.

  30. August 7, 2020 at 12:27 pm

    Note, however, with the above citation and talk, that the JoD has recently been demonstrated to be editorially unreliable.
    https://history.churchofjesuschrist.org/blog/preached-versus-published-part-1-of-3?lang=eng

  31. Jeffrey Walsh
    August 7, 2020 at 6:26 pm

    Ben S. So are you saying that the 26 volume 9750 pages of the Journal of Discourses are unreliable and the doctrines that Joseph Smith, Brigham Young and many other Prophets Seers and Revelators expounded upon cannot be relied on to be true?. Does this also mean that all the further Conference Reports that followed them are also unreliable?

  32. JR
    August 7, 2020 at 6:40 pm

    Jeffrey, Please read the article Ben linked. Your questions seem to take off in a very different direction from what is discussed in that article.
    Here’s a brief selection: “[T]he sermons published in the Journal of Discourses and in the Deseret News often differ significantly from what speakers actually said according to the original shorthand record… [W]hen we compare Watt’s shorthand to his longhand transcripts (and the resulting publication in the Journal of Discourses), it is clear that Watt made significant changes as he transcribed. He inserted words, phrases, and even extensive passages into his longhand that do not have any relation to the shorthand itself…”
    Unreliability of the Journal of Discourses does not necessarily entail unreliability of what doctrines the prophets actually taught.
    There are also edits done in some subsequent conference reports, but they are of a different scope and, I think, a different nature than those done by the 19th century shorthand transcribers and editors of the Journal of Discourses. The most publicly noted examples I remember are the complete revision of Elder Poelman’s talk in, I think, 1984, and the change to Elder Packer’s October 2010 talk regarding both same-sex attraction and the Proclamation on the Family.

  33. Chad Nielsen
    August 7, 2020 at 8:20 pm

    Jeffrey, pretty much anything before both modern standards of accuracy became the norm and modern sound recording technology became available is liable to be inaccurate. The Documentary History of the Church that was the standard reference for Joseph Smith’s teachings (and the basis of the Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith book that Joseph Fielding Smith edited) is also unreliable for capturing the precise words Joseph Smith said. That’s part of why both Carruth’s work and the Joseph Smith Papers Project are important-they get us closer to what the prophets actually said. In general, we get the gist of what was said in the traditional reports, so I don’t think we need to get too worked up about Church leaders using the old resources in the past, but now we have the opportunity to be a bit more accurate, which is great. I haven’t had the chance to look at the particular sermon in question in detail yet, but the Church does offer comparisons between the transcribed shorthand documents and the Journal of Discourses, so it will be interesting to see how far they differ from each other and how much of the meaning is the same. (For the sermon, see https://catalog.churchofjesuschrist.org/assets?id=4108f87d-dcdc-4019-8c54-2984d06a63e7&crate=0&index=0.)

  34. Jeffrey Walsh
    August 8, 2020 at 4:37 am

    Chad and JR. I have studied the suggested sermons and writings, following which the obvious question needs to be asked, especially the sermons delivered by Brigham Young. Considering George D Watt worked in Brigham Young’s office, how do we know that Brigham himself after reviewing the reports suggested the revisions before they were published in the Journal of Discourses.

    That being said both the side by side versions of the 9 October 1859 sermon contain Brigham’s teachings that Joseph Smith holds the keys of this dispensation, and every man and women will have to have the consent of Joseph Smith before being allowed to enter into the Celestial Kingdom. So for the life of me how can this be unreliable?

    Following many years studying the life of Brigham Young, in my estimation he was not a man who would allow anything he had said, which was wrong, to stay uncorrected for 18 years.

    Chad, quite frankly I consider the so called drive to have a “New Mormon History” because the old history is based on the fallibility of early Prophets fills me with concern. I am reminded of the Saviour’s pronouncement upon the learned Pharisees in Matthew 23 for straining at a gnat but swallowing a camel. I am sorry if this sounds critical but it is how I feel.

  35. Just wondering
    August 8, 2020 at 6:30 am

    I wonder how Joseph will single-handedly keep up with the masses of the dead of this Dispensation awaiting resurrection and their admission [or not] to the Celestial Kingdom. If the child mortality rate has been and remained high since the “Priesthood was taken away from the earth”, perhaps he can just waive most of them through the pearly gate without going through all the temple recommend questions. Maybe he doesn’t have to man all 12 gates personally, despite BY’s rhetoric. Revelation 21:21 (“And the twelve gates were twelve pearls: every several gate was of one pearl…”)

    Some have wondered about some Church leaders’ apparent fixation on “keys”, ruling, reigning, and general bossiness. Perhaps they prefer the invitation approach often attributed to Christ. Perhaps they prefer the NT to 19th century rhetoric. “For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.” 1 Tim 2:5

    Just wondering.

  36. Chad Nielsen
    August 8, 2020 at 10:10 am

    Jeffrey, you’ll note that I did say that “in general, we get the gist of what was said in the traditional reports,” though not the exact wording, and in glancing through the report of the sermon we’ve been talking about, that does seem to be the case there. I will also point out that I wasn’t the one who brought up the subject of editorial unreliability as an objection to your use of the sermon, I just pointed out that it’s generally true that the sources we’ve traditionally gone to for the words of early Church leaders are not 100% accurate. Sometimes the editing that was done before publication changed the meaning of what was said, and I was interested to look into this sermon in parallel with you to see if that was the case here. That’s why I said: “I haven’t had the chance to look at the particular sermon in question in detail yet” and “it will be interesting to see how far they differ from each other and how much of the meaning is the same.”

    Speaking more broadly about the Journal of Discourses, Carruth does note in her article that there are times where she has found that “it is clear that Watt made significant changes as he transcribed. He inserted words, phrases, and even extensive passages into his longhand that do not have any relation to the shorthand itself; these inserted passages’ style is often different from the style of the speaker he was transcribing. … Changes to Brigham Young’s sermons thus changed the representation of his personality, not to mention his prophetic guidance.” It’s possible that Brigham Young may have had a hand in some of the changes, but given that some of the inserted passages she speaks about are written in a different style than the speakers, it seems likely that he did not have a hand in all of the changes (or they would likely be in Brigham Young’s style when that happened Brigham Young’s sermons).

    Now, I’m not the expert in that particular area, but she is, and said that “examples of these differences will be included in parts two and three” of her series that the Church is publishing, so we’ll likely be getting a better feel for what she has to say about the subject. And she may answer your question about how much influence Brigham Young had on edits in the process. I’m interested to see what she has to say. Ben S. may also be better positioned to respond to some of your questions and objections on the subject than I am, though he’s on the road and bit pressed for time according to his latest post on his blog (so may not respond anytime soon).

    Speaking to your last point, about the “New Mormon History,” it is likely that the phrase has different shades of meaning depending on who is using it. To me, the efforts of modern Latter-day Saint historians are along the lines of what is being done to the Salt Lake Temple right now–architects and engineers are using the latest technology and techniques they have to improve the foundations of the building so it can better withstand disasters. The historians of the Church are likewise using the latest technology and techniques of their trade to assess and improve our understanding of the Church’s history so we can handle many of the difficult issues that anti-Mormon literature brings up.

    I can appreciate and understand your concerns about undermining the authority of our prophets and Church leaders. There does seem to be a pretty big crisis going on for people losing faith in the Church, so you are pretty well founded in having some concerns. I appreciate you bringing those concerns to the discussion, pointed though they may be at times. We have different ideas of how to help with the general situation, but you have given me some things to think about how I have been approaching things. (As a side note, I’m trying to work through reading the resources you mentioned above about Adam-God and Blood Atonement today. They’ve been interesting so far, and I will have to think on them more.)

    On the other hand, I also think that we shouldn’t get so focused on upholding the authority of our Church leaders that we start seeing them as infallible or close to infallible. They were and are human beings, and “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Point in case with the OP, I do think Brigham Young was simply wrong in what he taught about Cain and Blacks and laid out my reasoning why at length. I also stand by Armand Mauss’s statement that: “It is an unnecessary burden of misplaced apologetics that has been imposed by our history upon the universal and global aspirations of the Church” to defend the idea of the curse of Cain just because Brigham Young and other earlier Church leaders believed and taught it. Perhaps what I (and a few others) have failed to really emphasize when discussing prophetic fallibility, however, is that God still is able to move His work forward, even with missteps along the way by the humans he entrusts with that work on earth.

  37. lemuel
    August 8, 2020 at 7:13 pm

    Jeffrey Walsh–

    The keeper of the gate is the Holy One of Israel; and he employeth no servant there (2 Ne 9:41).

    We get so much confusion about our doctrine from things that other people attribute to Joseph.

  38. Jeffrey Walsh
    August 9, 2020 at 4:03 am

    Chad thanks for introducing me to Armand Mauss. After reading his paper in Sunstone “Dispelling the Curse of Cain”, I can now see where you base your ideas on.

    I do not recollect raising my arm to the square to accept the philosophies of Armand Mauss as scripture. But I accept that you have a perfect right to do so.

  39. Just wondering
    August 9, 2020 at 7:32 am

    Raising one’s arm to the square to accept anyone’s philosophies as scripture is an interesting caricature of the tradition of “sustaining” members and leaders of the Church in their callings. Perhaps it reflects one possible meaning of “sustain”. There are others.
    It seems a bit presumptuous to suppose that someone’s ideas are based on another’s publication. People can come quite independently to the same or similar ideas. It is in fact common to do so. I wonder why one would insist otherwise, unless it were to denigrate others or perhaps to demonstrate self-righteousness — neither need be a conscious motivation.

    Thanks to lemuel for the BoM citation in support of 1 Tim 2:5. I wonder why one would prefer the rhetoric of BY (reliably reported or not) to canonized scripture contrary to that rhetoric.

  40. Chad Nielsen
    August 9, 2020 at 8:39 am

    Jeffrey, you’re very good at shifting the grounds of the discussion when it suits you. That’s also one of the oddest ways I’ve ever seen someone try to dismiss my writing.

    Mauss is one of many influences on me with this subject. I accept those ideas because I’ve done a lot of reading on the topic and they make sense to me. It’s not a particular loyalty to the person or an acceptance of his works as scripture. Nor does it replace scripture for me. The whole point of the post above was a close reading of the scriptures that the Church accepts, on the subject of Cain.

    Along those lines, I have never accepted the combined works of Brigham Young as part of the scriptures either (only Section 136), so while I will study them and ponder on them as the words of an early Church leader, I don’t see them as binding on me and they are subject to scrutiny, particularly where I see them as deviating from the scripture (again, the Curse of Cain idea for me. It also seems that Just Wondering and Lemuel take a similar approach to weighing Brigham Young’s words about the judgement day).

  41. Dub
    August 9, 2020 at 9:03 am

    We’re all in favor of extinguishing the Cain teaching. The issue may have started with Brigham Young but so many after him reinforced it. For Elder McConkie, for example, the 1978 revelation is not a repudiation of the curse of Cain as a teaching, it only ended the curse. I think he is pretty clear on this and he reinforced the Cain teaching in the 1980s.

    In his April 1980 general conference talk, “The Coming Tests and Trials and Glory”, Elder McConkie reviews the amazing things coming to pass in the latter days, including “We see the seed of Cain—long denied that priestly power which makes men rulers over many kingdoms?—rise up and bless Abraham as their father.”

    In 1981 he provides an essay for the Deseret Book publication, Priesthood, along with many other general authorities. Although that book is out of print, it was a popular book in the 1980s. Those of that era may remember it by its colorful cover. You can see a used copy on Amazon.

    After Elder McConkie’s death, that essay was then reprinted in 1989 by Bookcraft in Doctrines of the Restoration, Sermons and Writings of BRM, edited by Mark McConkie. That lengthy essay asserts the following points among others:
    —The seed of Cain were subject to an ancient curse, but not any longer. The curse has been removed (page 161).
    —Related to 2 Ne. 26:33, this and other passages have a broader meaning than he supposed prior to the revelation. “Many of us never imagined or supposed that they had the extensive and broad meaning that they do have.” (Page 162) (This, despite that many had been citing this scripture as a reason to end the ban for years. That by itself is fascinating as an illustration of the power of sheer tradition and mindset. Elsewhere he states that scriptures were read in a way that accommodated the teachings supporting the ban.)
    —The gospel has been spread to some people before others (using the first to Jews and then to the Gentiles analogy to defend the priesthood ban), and then states: “We don’t envision the whole reason and purpose behind all of this: we can only suppose and reason that it is on the basis of preexistence and premortal devotion and faith.” (Page 163-64).
    —It is in that context that we have Elder McConkie’s often quoted statement to forget everything he has said on this subject that is contrary to the revelation. (165). The quotation is sometimes used to suggest that he believed that all prior teachings on the subject generally can be swept away. My reading is that is not his position. He was only saying that many had said that the priesthood would not be available until some much later date, but the timing had changed based on the revelation. The essay seems to be a complete reaffirmation by him of the Cain curse and related folk doctrines.
    —there is also a footnote by Mark McConkie that says BRM taught a family gathering that the same revelation was needed in the spirit world so they could conform their preaching there. Doesn’t seem like a policy shift in his mind.

    (1 of 2)

  42. Dub
    August 9, 2020 at 9:07 am

    (2 of 2)

    Why does this matter?
    —if we wonder how it is that these teachings about Cain have continued to resurface, such as in manuals, it may be because there are folks that assume that the BRM position is the uncontroversial position. It wouldn’t surprise me if that is how certain older religion professors (including those recently resigned) look at it. Some were probably there when BRM taught this in person. It wasn’t like a typo that it made it in the manual. Some read it and thought it was okay.
    —It’s helpful to talk about the origin of these teachings, but also important to talk about how they have been perpetuated in the last 60 years or so. The church is now repudiating the Cain curse in Gospel Topics and, for example, in the Saints 2 history. That probably won’t be enough. To simply not talk about it, or delete the old references in the manuals won’t be enough.
    —it also provides context for how many of the general authorities are reluctant to specifically state that their predecessors were actually incorrect regarding the priesthood restriction. The prior teachings were quite specific, and within their lifetimes. And they have no greater authority than their predecessors. They could at least speak to how the technical scriptural interpretation is just incorrect. That would help. But I’m not aware of any examples of where that has actually happened on any subject. And because the ban was supported by leadership for so long, at least due to precedent, no one in leadership is willing to say that it was actually wrong it in the first place—the rationale was wrong (yes), but the practice was wrong (no one is saying that).
    —it illustrates perhaps that the 1978 revelation was needed, as a revelation, because the policy has been so engrained as a doctrine in the minds of at least some leaders. I think President Kimball at least privately saw that the practice potentially had been a mistake (according to some private correspondence). President McKay saw it as a policy and not a doctrine. But others in the 12 over the years did not see it that way, such as the Harold B. Lee story at the end of President McKay’s administration. A revelation was needed to quiet the embedded doctrinal objections. Similarly, in the NT the gospel was to go forth to all nations per Matthew 28:19, but it took another revelation to Peter in Acts 10 to make it happen and I think for these observant Jews to get their head around the idea. Objections to the newly revealed practices are asserted against Peter in Acts 11. With the disclosure of the actual revelation, the objecting disciples “held their peace.” Acts 11:18. Similarly, leaders have made a big deal about the revelatory experience of that event. Perhaps in neither case should it have taken a revelation, but it took a revelation. I think it’s interesting that the Matthew/Acts references are used by Elder Soares in a 2019 face to face broadcast in response to a question on how to distinguish between policy and doctrine. I don’t think these implications are lost on our apostle from Brazil.
    —perhaps we sometimes project meanings back into certain revelations or changes, that really don’t have that meaning at the time (at least to some including BRM). We want to believe that the 1978 revelation repudiated these other teachings. Not really, but it seems like within a generation we are able to distance ourselves from the emotion of the change and make it mean more than it was understood at the time by the previous defenders of the status quo. A similar example is the Manifesto, that we now read it as ending polygamy, as opposed to limiting it where prohibited by law. We ended the practice as a church only reluctantly under force of law and believing that it may return. And yet Elder Cook in the Nauvoo Face to Face (and reprinted in a recent Ensign), says that many of the senior brethren believe that polygamy has served its purpose. Good news, but a shift. So despite the originally strident defense, now it’s never mind.

    And in both cases (Cain/priesthood and polygamy), official social teaching and practices were derived from details in the Old Testament book of Genesis. Perhaps that should provide some sort of lesson for us as well.

  43. August 17, 2020 at 11:31 pm

    I don’t pretend to have the ability to settle this whole question for everyone, all by myself, but I do want to make at least one point:

    The issue which I think is of greatest importance is that as a church, we have totally ignored vast sweeps of our history which I see as critical to understanding our culture and history, but those elements have been studiously ignored and even suppressed, for reasons I don’t understand. Without writing an entire book on this, which would be needed to do it justice, I just want to point out that Joseph Smith was asked to begin the gathering of the Saints to Missouri, which seems like the most contentious and dangerous place on the planet, or at least in our nation, for such a gathering. The slave status of Missouri and next-door Kansas were hotly contested and hundreds of people were killed during these pre-Civil War periods — Bloody Kansas involved the exact same people who had earlier killed the Mormons in Missouri. In other words, Joseph Smith took the Saints into the earliest Civil War battleground. Perhaps something in the range of 30-50 Saints were killed, some by execution and some by exposure to the elements, for being potential voters against the slavery status of Missouri, and later Kansas. John Brown was definitely not the only pre-Civil War casualty.

    I believe the first altercation between the Mormons and the “old settlers” (slave-owners in Little Dixie) occurred concerning voting. As it turned out the sturdy Saints won that particular skirmish with the proslavery mobbers, which only made it more urgent that the Mormons be killed or driven out of Missouri before they could overturn the status of Missouri as a slave state, which they would have been allowed to do, along with many other Northern immigrants, by simply voting to overturn that preliminary slave status.

    I think almost the entire historical set of problems between the church and the blacks had to do with this life-and-death struggle that occurred before the Civil War. The Extermination Order, the Hauns Mill massacre, etc., etc. — all these conflicts had nothing to do with what the Mormons believed about religion except for the fact that they were against slavery. That is all it took to get a rather large number of them persecuted and killed, and the threat was constant that ALL of them might be killed. The proslavery mobbers even followed them to Utah, in the form of a US Army from Kansas, hoping to kill or scatter them there so that Utah could become a slave state.

    For some reason, we have completely blanked out all of these Civil War and slavery-related issues, and then we wonder, with our totally sanitized history, why some of the church leaders had some of the opinions they did. We might remember that Mormon missionaries going into the South were as likely to be killed as not, again, simply because they were against the slavery system, at whatever stage in history they spent time in the South.

    In other words, encouraging blacks to become fully authorized church members and full US citizens, and perhaps even missionaries and preachers, was a good way to get those blacks killed and the Mormons killed who were supporting them. One might wonder how many more lives the Saints should have planned to lose in their support of offering the blacks every normal privilege in those tumultuous times. When being a “social justice warrior” can mean getting yourself and all your friends killed, suddenly that righteous path may not seem so sensible.

    We might notice that by 1978 the “second Civil War” concerning the civil rights movements of the 1960s had finally cooled down so that it was no longer likely that hundreds of Mormons would be killed, perhaps by KKK members if the Mormons were supporting black membership in the South. As I say, it would take a whole book to spin out all of these events and explanations, but we at least need to add that as one element of this discussion.

    The people of Missouri were constantly trying to kill Joseph Smith because he was against slavery, and they finally managed to kill him in Carthage for basically that reason. As a candidate for President of the United States, he was campaigning against the slavery system, naturally making him anathema to Southern politicians. He was killed in 1844, which was still nearly 20 years before the Civil War started, and things were constantly getting more tense on the slavery issue, not less tense. For at least the next 20 years after Joseph Smith’s death, the Mormons were still feared as an anti-slavery influence, with the entire southern slavocracy and mobocracy striving to destroy the Saints before they could move into the Western territories and prevent those territories from becoming slavery areas, as the southern slaver strategists were seeking. Again, this is very complex history, and needs a very large book to be written about it. It looks like that author will not be me, but, at the same time, many of our discussions about the history of the church and the history of our doctrines may be very thin, anemic, mono-dimensional, and immersed in presentism if we don’t take these stark practical matters into consideration.

  44. ji
    August 19, 2020 at 6:37 am

    Kent, A large book isn’t needed — your text is a good primer. Slavery affected almost everything in those days.

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