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On the Priesthood and Temple Ban

With the recent hullabaloo about Brad Wilcox’s firesides, I have had a few things on my mind, perhaps most intensely around the priesthood and temple ban against individuals of black African ancestry.  The short version is this: After studying the evidence, I believe that the ban was not instituted and sustained by God’s will.  Now, I’m not trying to pick on Brother Wilcox by bringing this up (he did apologize, etc.), but because of the discussion about his fireside, the topic has been on my mind, and I feel like I need to share my perspective.

It should be noted up-front that current Church statements leave the issue of whether the ban was of God or human-made open to interpretation.  For example, the heading to Official Declaration 2 acknowledges that “Church records offer no clear insights in the origin of this practice. Church leaders believed that a revelation from God was needed to alter this practice.”  The Gospel Topics Essay on the subject acknowledges that American racial culture of the mid-19th century may have influenced Brigham Young in establishing the ban.  It also echoes the language of the section header for Official Declaration 2, leaving it open to interpretation whether the ban was inspired and held in place by God’s will or simply held in place by the personal beliefs of Church leaders in the words and actions of their predecessors.  Thus, there is room in the Church for accepting the ban as the result of very human racism.

The main reasons I believe that to be the case are that:

1) Blacks were openly ordained to the priesthood prior to 1852

2) The reasons given for the ban by the people who instituted it are flawed and rooted in the prejudices and beliefs of 19th century America

3) The ban was inconsistently enforced

4) The theology of the Church tends more towards inclusion than exclusion, and

5) Genetic evidence indicates that we all have African ancestry


Reason 1: Black Individuals Were Ordained Prior to 1852

First, President Joseph Smith, the Prophet of the Restoration, did not seem to have any problems with ordaining individuals of black African descent to the priesthood or allowing them to receive temple ordinances. During his lifetime, at least two (and most likely a few more) Black men were ordained to the priesthood.  Q. Walker Lewis was even praised by President Brigham Young as being “one of the best Elders” in the Church.[1]  Significantly, Elijah Abel was ordained as a seventy and received the washing and anointing ordinances associated with the Kirtland Temple in the 1830s.[2]  He was very well acquainted with Joseph Smith and Elijah’s priesthood was reaffirmed throughout Joseph Smith’s lifetime (and afterwards).  Abel also participated in proxy baptisms for the dead in the early 1840s, shortly after the doctrine was announced.[3]  This is clear evidence that Joseph Smith endorsed the practice of ordaining Black men to the priesthood.

Even though individuals who were known to have black African ancestry did not receive the full set of temple ordinances that are practiced in the Church today during Joseph Smith’s lifetime, President Smith did not seem to be opposed to the idea.  Having moved to Cincinnati, Ohio in 1842, Elijah Abel was simply not in Nauvoo during the time that Joseph Smith began offering endowments and marriage sealing ordinances.  According to one account, the Smith family offered to have Jane Manning, a black woman, adopted or sealed to Joseph and Emma as a daughter, though she turned down the offer at the time.[4]  In addition, the First Presidency released a statement in 1840 that predicted that “people from every land and from every nation” would flock to Nauvoo and “worship the Lord of Hosts in his holy temple, and offer up their orisons in his sanctuary,” including “the degraded Hottentot” (an offensive term for the native Khoikhoi peoples of southwest Africa) and “persons … of every color.”[5]  This statement would indicate that black individuals were expected to participate in temple worship by Joseph Smith and his councilors.  It was not until 1847 (three years after Joseph Smith’s death) that Church leaders openly discussed the idea that black were not eligible for the priesthood and not until 1852 that Brigham Young publicly announced the ban as being binding.[6]  Before that time, Black saints were ordained and it was anticipated that they would worship in the temple.


Reason 2: The Stated Reasons for the Ban

Second, the reasons given by Church leaders for the priesthood ban were largely flawed and are rejected as being valid by the Church today. Brigham Young’s first recorded statement in support of the ban came in 1849, in which 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 scheme, however, Cain’s efforts backfired, and he and his descendants were barred from the priesthood until all of Abel’s descendants received the priesthood (as Brigham Young saw it).

President Young was consistent in expressing this belief throughout his lifetime in association with the ban. For example, when he publicly announced the ban during a legislative session of the Utah Territory, he cited the story of Cain and Abel, stating that God “put a mark upon him and it is seen in the [face] of every Negro on the Earth,” adding that: “it is the decree of God that the mark shall remain upon the seed of Cane [Cain] & the Curse untill all the seed of Abel should be re[deem]ed.” Specifically, he declared that: “Cane will not receive the priesthood or salvation untill all the seed of Abel are Redeemed. Any man having one drop of the seed of Cane in him Cannot hold the priesthood & if no other Prophet ever before spake it Before I will say it now in the name of Jesus Christ.”[8]

Many other statements could be cited, but Brigham Young was clear that he was placing the priesthood ban in place expressly because he believed that blacks were descended from Cain and were cursed by connection.[9] He also seems to have believed that blacks were cursed to slavery for the same reason and that they intellectually inferior to whites, incapable of government, and that having interracial children with individuals of black African descent was a sin.[10] These beliefs may have also played a role in confirming his conviction that Blacks should not hold the priesthood, since that would open the door to them serving in the government of the kingdom of God (priesthood) and interracial temple marriages.

Future church leaders followed suit in justifying the priesthood ban, accepting Brigham Young’s statements either through a common culture or a belief that his words represented the will of God.  John Taylor denied Elijah Abel the right to receive his temple ordinances after repeated investigations into the subject.  Wilford Woodruff denied Jane Manning the right to be sealed to any man as her husband or to Joseph Smith as her adoptive father.

Complicating the issue further, during the late 19th century, the priesthood ban began (inaccurately) to be attributed to Joseph Smith. Most notably, Zebedee Coltrin and Abraham O. Smoot made significant statements claiming that this was the case,[11] and then President George Q. Cannon made similar forceful claims.  Coltrin also began to claim that Joseph Smith had dropped Elijah Abel from the priesthood, despite clear evidence to the contrary that Elder Joseph F. Smith used to dismiss Coltrin’s claims when they were initially made.[12]  It is significant that the first four presidents of the Church after Joseph Smith all avoided attributing the ban to Joseph Smith.  Despite the dubious nature of the claims that Joseph Smith had founded the priesthood ban, those were incorporated into Latter-day Saint discourse as justifications for the ban. By 1908, President Joseph F. Smith would state that: “He did not know that we could do anything more in such cases than refer to the rulings of Presidents Young, Taylor, Woodruff and other Presidencies on this question,” and attributed the ban to Joseph Smith.[13]

During the 20th century, the ban had become solidly entrenched by precedent, incorrect group memory, and belief in prophetic authority.  When David O. McKay questioned President Heber J. Grant about the ban in 1921, President Grant stated that: “David, I am as sympathetic as you are, but until the Lord gives us a revelation regarding that matter, we shall have to maintain the policy of the Church.”[14]  Throughout much of the early 20th century, most Church members were only dimly aware of the policy, and those that were assumed that it was put in place during the early days of the Church under Joseph Smith’s leadership as a restoration of an Old Testament-era policy and had never been questioned by Church leaders.[15]  Doctrinal rationales followed along the contours laid out by Brigham Young and his contemporaries, sometimes directly incorporating arguments made by people from the American south in favor of the slave trade. For example, in an official statement issued in 1949, it was stated that the ban was placed by “direct commandment of the Lord,” citing a statement from Brigham Young about the curse of Cain and another idea that had taken root during the late 19th century—that blacks were also being punished for being less faithful in the premortal existence.  The statement concluded by stating that based on these beliefs, “there is no injustice whatsoever involved in this deprivation as to the holding of the priesthood” by blacks.[16]

Most of the statements discussed previously were based on a belief that was adopted from earlier Judeo-Christian thought in which Africans were descendants of the Biblical villain Cain through Noah’s son Ham.[17]  This was often connected with the idea that Cain’s mark was blackness of skin and that Ham’s indiscretions towards Noah resulted in a curse of servitude for some of his descendants (a justification often used for enslaving Africans).[18]  This belief was at least partially based on the table of nations in Genesis 10:1-32, in which Ham’s descendants are listed as settling northeastern Africa and Palestine. No statement in the Bible, however, reliably connects Cain to Ham’s wife or descendants.

Whatever the case, in our day, the Church rejects rationales put forward in the past as reasons for the priesthood ban.  The official Gospel Topics essay on race and the priesthood specifically states that: “Over time, Church leaders and members advanced many theories to explain the priesthood and temple restrictions.  None of these explanations is accepted today as the official doctrine of the Church.”[19] It goes on to state 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.[20]

Elder Jeffrey R. Holland also stated that “the folklore must never be perpetuated” and that “however well intentioned the explanations were, I think almost all of them were inadequate and/or wrong.”[21]  Thus, explanations concerning descent from Cain or unfaithfulness in the premortal existence used to justify the priesthood and temple ban are no longer accepted by the Church.  This is the case even though the belief in a connection to Cain and a curse placed upon him and individuals of black African descent was the reason given for the ban by the person who, as best we can tell, instituted the ban (Brigham Young).  If Brigham Young sincerely believed that the ban was already in place because of the curse of Cain and felt that he was only articulating an already-existing arrangement, then the ban was likely the result of a mistake of a man, since his reasons are not accepted by the Church today as being legitimate.


Reason 3:  Inconsistent Enforcement of the Ban

The third issue is that the ban was not consistently applied.  Brigham Young indicated that: “Any man having one drop of the seed of [Cain] in him Cannot hold the priesthood.”[22] This was reiterated in 1907, when the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve ruled that: “No one known to have in his veins negro blood, (it matters not how remote a degree) can either have the priesthood in any degree or the blessings of the temple of God; no matter how otherwise worthy he may be.”[23]  Yet, by the time either of these had been articulated, at least both Elijah Abel and Q. Walker Lewis had held the priesthood, and Elijah Abel’s priesthood was confirmed several times throughout his lifetime.[24] At least two of Abel’s descendants seem to have been allowed to hold the priesthood during the period the ban was in place, which defied the “one-drop” rule.[25]

Further, President David O. McKay shifted the burden from proving that one’s lineage was free of black African descent to allowing anyone who did not seem to have African ancestry to be ordained.  He stated that he would rather “make a mistake in one case and if it be found out afterwards suspend his activity in the Priesthood than deprive 10 worthy men of the Priesthood.”[26]  It is likely that many individuals who had that theoretical “one drop” were allowed to be ordained under this policy.  Modern DNA evidence also seems to indicate that there were individuals who were ordained or received temple ordinances prior to 1978 had significant amounts of African ancestry that were not apparent at the time.[27]  For example, Sarah Ann Mode Hofheintz passed as white in the Church and received her full endowment and sealing ordinances in 1845 and 1855, respectively, even though her father was black.[28]  A similar event happened for descendants of Nelson Holder Ritchie, who was denied access to the temple in 1909 because of African ancestry, but whose children were allowed to receive the priesthood and temple ordinances prior to 1978.[29]

The issue here is that allowing violations of the ban to stand and exercise priesthood authority undermines the legitimacy of the ban as a whole. If anyone with black African ancestry was able to use the priesthood and his acts were accepted as legitimate in the Church prior to 1978, then that is selective enforcement of a ban, which seems to signal that it was enforced at convenience at the insistence of human beings rather than insistently being enforced as the will of God in all situations.


Reason Four: Theology of God’s Love

A fourth issue is that the doctrines and theology of the Church generally go against a divine injunction against one race being denied full exaltation. In the Book of Mormon, God is characterized as one who “inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile” (2 Nephi 26:33).  God is also described in the scriptures as “no respecter of persons” (or “shows no partiality”), with Peter teaching that: “In every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him.” (Acts 10:34-35.)  The Lectures on Faith (an early attempt at summarizing Latter Day Saint thought) argued forcefully that “men could not exercise faith in [God]” if Peter’s teachings cited above were not true, “because if [God] were a respecter of persons, they could not tell what their privileges were, nor how far they were authorized to exercise faith in him, or whether they were authorized to do it at all, but all must be in confusion.”[30] Thus, an essential characteristic of God’s nature in Latter-day Saint thought is impartiality towards all of humankind.

The doctrines of a universal Atonement and individual responsibility for seeking salvation or damnation also goes against denying blacks temple rituals and priesthood authority.  The Articles of Faith teach that “men will be punished for their own sins, and not for Adam’s transgression,” and that “through the Atonement of Christ, all mankind may be saved, by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the Gospel” (Articles of Faith 1:2-3).  If mankind was not punished for Adam’s transgression, why should they be punished for Cain’s or Ham’s transgressions either?  If obedience to the laws and ordinances of the Gospel is necessary to be saved through the Atonement of Christ, then what defect in the Atonement would cause God to deny a large portion of humanity the right to fully practice those laws and ordinances?  Latter-day Saint soteriology leans towards inclusiveness rather than exclusion, and the fact that the exclusion aligned with common cultural beliefs in American society tends to signal that the exclusion was cultural rather than divine in its origin.


Reason 5: Genetic Evidence

For those who accept current scientific thought, the ban against black Africans is further undermined. Currently, it is believed that humanity began in Africa and migrated out from there. This being the case, Africans were likely not all descendants of Ham or Cain, but Ham and Cain (if they were historical individuals at all) were descendants of Africans.  By extension, all of us have African ancestry.  Furthermore, the curse placed upon Ham’s descendants seems to be more political in nature in the Bible, aimed at justifying Hebrew conquest and enslavement of Canaanite peoples rather than all African peoples.[31]  This indicates that the ban was mistaken in its parameters, since we all technically were under its purview.



A few events in church history, however, complicate the issue. Both President David O. McKay and President Harold B. Lee both sincerely prayed to know if God wanted the ban to be lifted in the decades prior to 1978.[32]  Some have brushed off David O. McKay’s seeking for a revelation as a simple failure to discern the divine will on the matter (and, frankly, Harold B. Lee was biased against an answer of lifting the ban).  Others dismiss the accounts as late, second-hand recollections on an emotionally-charged subject, and therefore not reliable as historical sources.  These reports of church leaders seeking to lift the ban complicate the picture of God’s involvement in the ban, though, and I’m not settled on an answer as to what they mean.


Concluding Thoughts

Accepting the ban as a result of the human element of the Church is a bitter pill to swallow because of how it affects my relationship with the Church hierarchy.  If God invites all to come unto him, why would He fail to have his prophets push His people to be ahead of the curve, so to speak, on acceptance and love of all people for well over 100 years?  If the ban was in place due to racism within the Church, why didn’t God intervene and forcefully tell His mouthpieces to condemn instead of condone racism?  It is humbling to accept the idea that racism has been intertwined in the Church’s history and policies but it also raises some painful questions about God’s involvement in the Church.

Despite my misgivings, I feel a bit like what Elder Orson Pratt wrote when he was dealing with some serious difficulties in his relationship with President Joseph Smith.  As he wrote: “I have not … renounced the church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, but believe that its doctrine, … is pure and according to the scriptures of eternal truth. … In fine, there is something in it which seems to whisper that ‘God is there.’”[33]  While I have my concerns, I still feel connected to God through the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and have no intention of renouncing the Church.

And there are some important lessons that can be taken from the history of the ban for those, like me, who accept it as human error.  As W. Paul Reeve wrote:

It is much more profitable, in my estimation, to learn from our collective history, rather than defend or deny it. What lessons can it teach? Latter-day Saints experienced racialization at the hands of outsiders; and Latter-day Saints engaged in racism on the inside. What better people to lead out on issues of racial inequality and social justice? Rather than be hobbled by our past racism, what if we owned it and used our shared history to stand in places of empathy? What if we were willing to work against racial injustice because we experienced a soft form of it? What if we were willing to speak up and stand up against systemic racism because we engaged in it ourselves and have come to understand its consequences? What if we were willing, like Jesus, to claim “all flesh” as our own?[34]

Accepting the priesthood and temple ban on individuals of black African ancestry between 1852 and 1978 in the Church can be a launching point for important introspection and actions to, as President Russell M. Nelson stated, “lead out in abandoning attitudes and actions of prejudice [and] … promote respect for all of God’s children.”[35]

With all of this in mind, I feel like President Spencer W. Kimball perhaps best embodies balance between humility about the past but working towards a better future on this topic.  Prior to becoming president of the Church, he wrote that: “I believe in the living prophets as much or almost more than the dead ones. They are here to clarify and reaffirm.  I have served with and under three of them.  The doctrine or policy [of withholding the priesthood and temple ordinances] has not varied in my memory.  I know it could.  I know the Lord could change his policy and release the ban and forgive the possible error which brought about the deprivation.”[36]  Thus, whether one believes the ban was the result of an error or not, President Kimball held that we should trust the living prophets and keep moving forward with faith in the Lord.



[1] Historian’s Office General Church Minutes, Mar. 26, 1847, Church History Library, Salt Lake City, spelling and punctuation modernized.

[2] Minutes of the Seventies Journal, kept by Hazen Aldrich, 20 Dec. 1836, LDS Church Archives.

[3]  See “Elijah Abel bapt for John F. Lancaster a friend,” as contained in Nauvoo Temple Records Book A100, LDS Church Archives. Also see two other entries in this same record: “Delila Abel bapt in the instance of Elisha [sic] Abel. Rel son. Bapt 1840, Book A page l”and “Delila Abel Bapt. in the instance of Elijah Abel 1841, Rel. Dau. Book A page 5.”


[5] “Report of the Presidency” at General Conference, 3-5 Oct. 1840, in Times & Seasons, 1:188, or History of the Church, 4:213. Though “washing and anointing” was performed in Kirtland, the ordinances presently denied Negroes were not announced until 1841 (sealing) and 1842 (endowments), and were not performed in the Nauvoo Temple until 1846 and 1845, respectively.

[6] See Lester E. Bush, Jr., “Mormonism’s Negro Doctrine: A Historical Overview,” in Lester E. Bush, Jr. and Armand L. Mauss, eds. Neither White nor Black: Mormon Scholars Confront the Race Issue in a Universal Church (Midvale, Utah: Signature Books, 1984),

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

[8] Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, Vol. 4, p.97

[9] See, for example, 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.

[10] See, for example, his discourse to the legislature on 16 January 1852 in Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, 4:97. See also Journal of Discourses, 7:290-91 (9 Oct. 1859), 10:190; Millennial Star, editorial, 27 (28 Oct. 1865): 682-83; Millennial Star, 15 (July 2, 1853): 422.

[11] John Nuttall Journal 1 (1876-84): 290-93, Typescript, BYU library. The interview took place 31 May 1879.

[12] Minutes of the Council of Twelve, 4 June 1879 in the Bennion papers.

[13] Minutes of the Council of the Twelve, Council minutes, 26 Aug. 1908, Bennion (or George A. Smith) papers.

[14] Cited in Gregory A. Prince and Wm. Robert Wright, David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism (SLC: University of Utah Press, 2005), 74.

[15] See for example, First Presidency (George Albert Smith, J. Reuben Clark, and David O. McKay) to Lowry Nelson, July 17, 1947, cited in Prince and Wright, David O. McKay, 74-75.

[16] Cited in Bush and Mauss, Neither Black nor White, 221,

[17] David M. Goldenberg, The Curse of Ham: Race and Slavery in Early Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003), 178–182, 360n20; Colin Kidd, The Forging of Races: Race and Scripture in the Protestant Atlantic World, 1600–2000 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

[18] Stephen R. Haynes, Noah’s Curse: The Biblical Justification of American Slavery (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002). See Genesis 9:18-27 for the story of the curse of servitude.

[19] “Race and the Priesthood,”, accessed 27 May 2018.

[20] “Race and the Priesthood,”, accessed 27 May 2018.


[22] Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, Vol. 4, p.97

[23] “Extract from George F. Richards’ Record of Decisions by the Council of the First Presidency and the Twelve Apostles,” in the GAS papers.

[24] See Newell G. Bringhurst, “Elijah Abel and the Changing Status of Blacks Within Mormonism,” in Bush and Mauss, Neither Black nor White,

[25] This according to the findings of Jerald and Sandra Tanner, Mormons and Negroes (Salt Lake City, Utah, Modern Microfilm Co., 1970), pp. 12, 16, which contains documentary evidence indicating that Enoch Abel, a son of Elijah Abel, was ordained an elder on 10 Nov. 1900. and that a grandson, Elijah Abel, was ordained a priest on 5 Jul. 1934 and an elder on 29 Sept. 1935. The Tanners also suggested that Elijah Abel’s other surviving son, also named Elijah, may have been ordained to the priesthood.

[26] See Prince and Wright, David O. McKay, 77-78.

[27] See for example, “Q&A With Paul Reeve on Race in the Church,” By Common Consent, 8 April 2015, accessed 27 May 2018,

[28] Hofheintz, Sarah Ann Mode, Century of Black Mormons,

[29] Ritchie, Nelson Holder, Century of Black Mormons,

[30] “Lectures on Faith,” lecture 3, paragraph 23, in editions of the Doctrine and Covenants published prior to 1921.

[31] See The New Oxford Annotated Bible, New Revised Standard Version With the Apocrypha: An Ecumenical Study Bible, Fully Revised Fourth Edition, Michael D. Coogan, ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), footnote on p. 24.

[32] See Prince and Wright, David O. McKay, 103-105 and Leonard J. Arrington, Adventures of a Church Historian (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1998), 180.

[33] Orson Pratt, “For the Wasp,” The Wasp Vol. I, No. 20 (September 3, 1842).

[34] W. Paul Reeve, “Making Sense of the Church’s History on Race,” Faith Matters, June 30, 2020,

[35] Russell M. Nelson, “Let God Prevail,” General Conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, October 2020,

[36] Edward L. Kimball (ed.) The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball (SLC: Bookcraft, 1982), 449.

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