Exploring the Divinity of the Ban

This is a discussion on whether the priesthood and temple ban for those of African descent was inspired by God.  We start in Winter Quarters in 1847.  Joseph Smith was martyred three years previous, and the saints have been displaced, Brigham Young is leading the church as president of the Quorum of the Twelve.

In March of 1847, Brigham Young indicated that God did not see his children by color and race.  He said to a distraught black member, William McCary, concerned about his place in the community, “Its nothing to do with blood, for of one blood has God made all flesh. …we don’t care about the color. … We have one of the best Elders – an African in Lowell, Massachusetts [referring to Walker Lewis, an ordained African-American].”[1]  However, there were some events that followed that, ultimately, lead Brigham to change his stance.

Walker Lewis’s son, Enoch Lovejoy Lewis, married in 1846 to a white LDS woman, Mary Matilda Webster in Boston.  They had their mixed-race child in 1847. The previous year, 1846, William McCary married a daughter of Nauvoo stake president, Daniel Stanton.  Then, in 1847, he “sealed” himself to other white LDS women in Winter Quarters in 1847.  This experience prompted apostle Parley P. Pratt to make the first statement linking black skin with priesthood.[2]

When Brigham returned to Winter Quarters in the fall of ‘47, he began thinking about the issue earnestly.  He could declare interracial marriage to be a capital offense worthy of “death on the spot” in one breath and suggest that interracial couples are worthy of baptism and eternal sealings in the next.[3]

In 1849, he made his first statement about a priesthood restriction.

The curse remained upon them because Cain cut off the life of Abel, to prevent him and his posterity getting ascendency over Cain and his generations, and to get the lead himself, his own offering 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.[4]

In 1852, the policy was made public and official by Brigham Young in front of the state legislature in discussions about Utah slavery.  Slavery was explicitly legal in the Territory of Utah after 1852.  Slave owning converts were instructed to bring their slaves or “sell them, or let them go free, as your conscience may direct you.”[5] Slave owners included bishops, high councilmen, and even an apostle Charles C. Rich.  Like broader America, Brigham Young justified slavery saying, “The Lord put a mark upon [Cain], which is the flat nose and the black skin.  Trace mankind down to after the flood, and then another curse is pronounced upon the same race-that they should be the ‘servant of servants.’” He further declared the futility of any effort to free slaves.  “They will [be servant of servants] until that curse is removed; and the Abolitionists cannot help it, nor in the least alter that decree.”  Another time saying, “The seed of Ham…will serve his brethren…until God removes the curse; and no power can hinder it.” Two years into the civil and after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation he again stated, “Will the present struggle free the slave?  No…Can you destroy the decrees of the Almighty?  You cannot.  Yet our Christian brethren think they are going to overthrow the sentence of the Almighty upon the seed of Ham.  They cannot do that, though they may kill them by thousands and tens of thousands.”[6]

The Church Essay

In December 2013, the church released a monumental essay giving clear, honest context for the origin and elimination of the policy.  They begin by noting that the church was established during an era of great racial division, where prejudice was not just common but customary.  These prejudices, the essay says, influenced their religion. 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.

This is important to contrast with official statements of the past. I give two examples.  In the April 1939 general conference, George Albert Smith taught that blacks were less valient in the pre-existence.

The  negro  is  an  unfortunate  man.  He  has  been  given  a  black  skin.  But  that  is  as nothing  compared  with  that  greater  handicap  that  he  is  not  permitted  to  receive the  Priesthood  and  the  ordinances  of  the  temple,  necessary  to  prepare  men and  women  to  enter  into  and  enjoy  a  fullness  of  glory  in  the  celestial  kingdom. What  is  the  reason  for  this  condition,  we  ask,  and  I  find  it  to  my  satisfaction  to think  that  as  spirit  children  of  our  Eternal  Father  they  were  not  valiant  in  the fight .
The 1949 official statement by the First Presidency.

The attitude of the Church with reference to the Negroes remains as it has always stood. It is not a matter of the declaration of a policy but of direct commandment from the Lord, on which is founded the doctrine of the Church from the days of its organization, to the effect that Negroes may become members of the Church but that they are not entitled to the priesthood at the present time.  President Brigham Young said: “Why are so many of the inhabitants of the earth cursed with a skin of blackness? It comes in consequence of their fathers rejecting the power of the holy priesthood, and the law of God. They will go down to death. And when all the rest of the children have received their blessings in the holy priesthood, then that curse will be removed from the seed of Cain, and they will then come up and possess the priesthood, and receive all the blessings which we now are entitled to.” 

The position of the Church regarding the Negro may be understood when another doctrine of the Church is kept in mind, namely, that the conduct of spirits in the premortal existence has some determining effect upon the conditions and circumstances under which these spirits take on mortality and that while the details of this principle have not been made known, the mortality is a privilege that is given to those who maintain their first estate; and that the worth of the privilege is so great that spirits are willing to come to earth and take on bodies no matter what the handicap may be as to the kind of bodies they are to secure; and that among the handicaps, failure of the right to enjoy in mortality the blessings of the priesthood is a handicap which spirits are willing to assume in order that they might come to earth. Under this principle there is no injustice whatsoever involved in this deprivation as to the holding of the priesthood by the Negroes.

The essay now finds that the doctrines declared by the First Presidency in 1949 to be erroneous.  It labels what was once called doctrine as simply a theory.  The natural implication asks when are today’s doctrines going to be called tomorrow’s theories?

The essay notes that the curse of Cain justification originated in the U.S. from at least the 1730’s.  Furthermore, that the justification for slavery stemmed from this and the curse of Ham.  These doctrines were already in the milieu when the Brigham introduced the ban.  In the 1852 speech, he declared,

…any man having one drop of the seed of [Cain]…in him cannot hold the priesthood and if no other Prophet ever spake it before I will say it now in the name of Jesus Christ I know it is true and others know it…

What is that mark [of Cain]? you will see it on the countenance of every African you ever did see upon the face of the earth, or ever will see. Now I tell you what I know; … the Lord told Cain that he should not receive the blessings of the priesthood nor his seed, until the last of the posterity of Able had received the priesthood, until the redemption of the earth. … This people that are commonly called negroes are the children of old Cain. I know they are, I know that they cannot bear rule in the priesthood, for the curse on them was to remain upon them. Source.

Brigham Young never cited any revelation.  His reason for instituting the policy was because of the belief that those of African descent carried the curse of Cain, the existing belief of the 19th century white Americans.  He declared in the name of Christ that the seed of Cain cannot hold the priesthood.

Books of Genesis and Moses

Abreha-wa-atsbeha-church02The scriptures mention a mark being put on Cain. There is no scriptural explanation of
what that mark may be or how it relates to the priesthood.  We have as much evidence that
it was male pattern baldness as we do that it was skin color.  Additionally, we know it was a mark of protection.  A positive thing.  Moses 7:22 records a vision of the future to Enoch, (already six generations after Cain), “the residue of the people … of Adam… [did not include] the seed of Cain, for the seed of Cain were black.”  Additionally, Moses 7:8 says that “a blackness came upon the children of Canaan” (The pre-flood Canaan).  These verses do not indicate whether it was a blackness of skin or a blackness of heart.  The Joseph Smith Translation describes (the post flood) curse on Canaan as “a veil of darkness shall cover him”[7]. Also note Moses 7:61 “the heavens shall be darkened, and a veil of darkness shall cover the earth.” Lamech, Cain’s progeny, lucybecame cursed only after covenanting with Satan, not because of family ties to Cain.[8]  Importantly, we have no reason to believe that there is a connection between (pre-flood) Canaan and Cain.  After the flood, Genesis 9:18 indicates that Ham is the father of Canaan.[9]  Canaan peculiarly is cursed (you shall be “a servant of servants”) by Noah for Ham seeing Noah’s nakedness. There is no mention of priesthood restriction, in any of these books.

The Book of Abraham

The Book of Abraham records Pharaoh “being of that lineage by which he could not have the right of Priesthood.” Pharaoh was a descendant of Ham and “partaker of the blood of the Canaanites by birth. From this descent sprang all the Egyptians.”  There is no connection to Cain, the pre-flood Canaan, nor any connection to the “blackness”.  Neither is there any explanation as to why the lineage could not have the priesthood.  Was it temporary or permanent.  How would this connect to modern lineages?


Lester Bush, a Mormon scholar, met with Hugh Nibley in 1976 after he the publishing of his seminal article outlining the history of blacks and the priesthood in 1973.  Bush writes, “[Nibley] said—”we all have Negro blood”—there was intermixture everywhere. I asked about the accounts of the early patriarchs marrying apparent blacks. He exclaimed yes[.] I mentioned Moses—Yes. But the real “irony” was Joseph marrying a daughter of the priest of On—who he says by wayechi-parsha-joseph_asnath_their-sons-menasseh-and-ephraim-joseph-king-of-dreams-movie-copydefinition had to have been a Hamite—and their sons were Ephraim and Manasseh, who[m] we are all so proud to claim. He said it was as though the Lord was trying to tell us something.”[10]  Hugh Nibley suggested in 1981 that the priesthood denial had nothing to do with racial lineage but with the claim of the priesthood through the matriarchal line.[11]


This was a time before Christ, when the priesthood was not available to most people. The ancient practice where only one group is able to exercise the priesthood and work in the temple has little in common with modern times when everyone is able to hold the priesthood except for one group.[12]

We Don’t Know

This essay is the first statement from the church that does NOT include “no clear insights into the origins” type of language.  Indicating we do have insights into its origin.  The seminal 1973 paper by Lester Bush outlines the history of thought concerning the ban.

When first apparent, these beliefs were sustained by the widely accepted connection of the Negro with Ham and Cain, the acknowledged intellectual and social inferiority of the Negro, his black skin, and the strength of Brigham Young’s testimony and/or opinion. With the unanticipated termination of the curse of slavery on Canaan, the death of Brigham Young, increased evidence of Negro capability, and the decline of general support for the traditional genealogy of the blacks, justification of Church policy shifted to the Pearl of Great Price (and an interpretation derived from earlier beliefs), and the belief that the policy could be traced through all the presidents of the Church to the Prophet Joseph Smith. By the middle of the twentieth century little evidence remained for the old concepts of racial inferiority; skin color had also lost its relevance, and the Pearl of Great Price alone was no longer considered a sufficient explanation. Supplementing and eventually surpassing these concepts was the idea that the blacks had somehow performed inadequately in the pre-existence. Most recently all of these explanations have been superseded by the belief that, after all, there is no specific explanation for the priesthood policy.

Bush further said,

“Though it is now popular among Mormons to argue that the basis for the priesthood denial to Negroes is unknown, no uncertainty was evident in the discourses of Brigham Young.  From the initial remark in 1849 throughout his presidency, every known discussion of this subject by Young (or any other leading Mormon) invoked the connection with Cain as the justification for denying the priesthood to blacks.”

I ask, if it wasn’t a mystery to Brigham, why would it be a mystery to us?

Finally, one of the closing paragraphs of the essay, which ought to be repeated from the housetops for decades to come.

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 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.

This leaves us with perhaps two options:

  1. Brigham Young and subsequent church leaders were wrong about the restriction and the restriction was a mistake.
  2. While Brigham Young and subsequent church leaders were wrong about everything related to the restriction, including the reason for initiating it, the restriction was nevertheless God’s will.

Option two requires that God allowed egregious and racist beliefs and teachings in his church.  It elevates church policy over the beliefs and teachings of leaders and members.

Why 125 years?

If the policy banning blacks from the priesthood was not inspired, why did God allow his church to wait for so long before he gave the revelation?

There appears to be two explanations.  One, that the apostles simply weren’t ready for the revelation, as it countered their view of the world too deeply.  God is a respecter of agency foremost, even that of his prophets.  We cannot receive revelation above that which we are able to receive.  Greg Prince suggested,

“I hold open the possibility that God sometimes needs the apostles to be on board, not just intellectually, but emotionally and spiritually as well, and that it’s possible that the Lord can even allow things to wait until he feels like the apostles are all of one heart and one mind.”

Men are slow to change in their beliefs. Even in the New Testament, Peter had to be lifted beyond his prejudice to sit and eat with the Gentiles[13]. As President Kimball said in his Conference talk in 1954, “The prejudices were in Peter, and it took a vision from heaven to help him to cast off his bias…. Peter’s long-sustained prejudices gave way finally under the power of the thrice repeated command. When the devout Gentile Cornelius immediately thereafter appealed to him for the gospel, the full meaning of the vision burst upon Peter and he exclaimed, “God hath shewed me that I should not call any man common or unclean”

President Kimball, in 1977, worried that the apostles will not be of one mind concerning the issue.  He even indicated that Pres. Benson wouldn’t pursue it.  When asked “What do you think would happen if we changed the policy [regarding blacks and the priesthood]? Give me a scenario.” He expressed his own concerns about internal dissent, particularly from members in the American South or even from the Quorum of the twelve. He said “I don’t know that I should be the one doing this, but if I don’t my successor won’t.”[14]

In 1969, after Stanford publicly refused to play BYU in sports due to the issue, President Hugh B. Brown, as first counselor proposed that the Church’s policy be reversed and that Blacks be given the Priesthood. This policy was approved by the Quorum of Twelve and the First Presidency with President McKay, Elder Harold B. Lee absent. (President McKay was disabled due to age and President Lee was traveling on Church business). When President Lee returns, he calls for another vote and the measure is defeated.  President Lee held “the traditional belief as revealed in the Old Testament that the races ought to be kept together.”[23]

The second explanation is that those who did search out the question before 1978, never quite paid the price to receive the mind of God.  Revelation always comes after work.

President Kimball said in 1973,

 “It is the policy of the Lord who has established it, and I know of no change, although we are subject to revelations of the Lord in case he should ever wish to make a change.” 

“Revelations will probably never come unless they are desired.  I think few people receive revelations while lounging on the couch or while playing cards or while relaxing.  I believe most revelations would come when a man is on his tip toes, reaching as high as he can for something which he knows he needs, and then there bursts upon him the answer to his problems.” 

Perhaps, previous leaders, when contemplating the question, never fully reached on theirc4af9de4c2b05b31d94711e1514fa0bc tip toes.  They didn’t sufficiently search it out in their mind and in their heart.  Edward Kimball, Pres. Kimball’s son documents in an excellent article the grueling and arduous process of years of searching and seeking consensus before the 1978 revelation was received.[15]

What contributed to the leaders asking serious questions?

The lack of the ability to challenge the authorities of the church over the question of the priesthood ban, under threat of excommunication or public humiliation, no doubt affected the perpetuation of Brigham Young’s views of the issue over the next century.


One of the difficulties of changing our doctrine concerning the justification for the restriction is what is speaks of our ability to discern correct doctrine, today. A New Zealand former bishop and stake president thoughtfully discusses his years using the curse of Cain argument.

“I have given the hard-line on church policies and doctrines and have held people accountable. … All of this has caused me to grapple with my own questions.  Is it possible that I have hurt people with doctrines and dogmas that in the light of these essays seem to sit on shaky ground?”



On the Need for Continued Work and Why It Took an Additional 35 Years to Release the Essay.

Elder Bruce R. McConkie introduced and discussed the implication of the lifted priesthood and temple ban.  Very strikingly he declared,

Forget everything that I have said, or what President Brigham Young or President George Q. Cannon or whomsoever has said in days past that is contrary to the present revelation. We spoke with a limited understanding and without the light and knowledge that now has come into the world….

It doesn’t make a particle of difference what anybody ever said about the Negro matter before the first day of June of this year, 1978. It is a new day and a new arrangement, and the Lord has now given the revelation that sheds light out into the world on this subject. As to any slivers of light or any particles of darkness of the past, we forget about them.[16]

However, further in the sermon, he stated that “we do not envision the whole reason and purpose behind all of [the ban]; we can only suppose and reason that it is on the basis of our premortal devotion and faith.” He also referred to blacks as “the seed of Cain and Ham and Egyptus and Pharoah.”  In short, he indicated what was not to be forgotten about past statements.

The very issue of the Church News that declared the ban was lifted, an article ran the headline “Interracial Marriage Discouraged.”  There is some indication that Elder Mark E. Petersen required this emphasis.[17] Hence, there was still a need to stamp out the racist doctrines, teachings, and beliefs in our church.

In the past, the Church seems to have chosen to let time filter out certain beliefs out of our culture, with mixed results.  Brigham Young’s Adam-God doctrine only quietly faded away.  The First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve’s 1916 A Doctrinal Exposition on the Father and the Son simply made no mention of it.  Not until 1980 when Elder McConkie directly condemned it saying “The devil keeps this heresy alive as a means of obtaining converts to cultism.”[18]  Yet, he avoided any indication that the originator of the doctrine was the prophet Brigham Young.

Up until the essay, the church never disavowed any previous racial doctrine.  Especially one so widely taught.  There were low-key comments[19] to the effect, but nothing with any canonical weight, such as a conference talk.  President Hinckley said “I don’t see anything further that we need to do.”  On another occasion, “I know that we’ve rectified whatever may have appeared to be wrong at that time [pre-1978].”

In the late 1990’s, A. David Jackson, set about submitting an appeal to the Church officials, with the support and help of Elder Marlin K. Jensen of the Seventy. They approached the Church through legitimate channels, requested that a firm declaration that repudiated any racist statements made in the past. In 1998, however, Jackson told Larry Stammer of the Los Angeles Times about this effort in hopes of accelerating the process. Armand Mauss—a sociologist who was involved in writing the statement—had warned him that such action would simply “derail the whole campaign.” When asked by reporters about the Stammer story after it was printed, he simply stated that “Jackson and Stammer had killed any chance for such a formal statement of repudiation to occur” and noted in his autobiography that, “I turned out to be quite right about that, of course, as President Hinckley, himself badgered by the Utah press, finally declared that he had heard nothing about plans for a repudiation, and none such would be forthcoming, nor did he regard it as necessary.”[20]

In 2012, Daron Smith, a former adjunct professor at BYU publicly sought the church to apologize

While the Catholic Church and other Protestant based faiths—Episcopal Church, United Methodist Church, Southern Baptist, Lutheran—have since made peace with their racist past and issued public apologies for their role in slavery, Jim Crow racism, and their participation in the mistreatment of African-Americans at the hands of misguided Christians, the LDS Church remains unshakable, convinced that its policy was divinely sanctioned by God and that no such apology is needed.

Our goal is to get the Mormon Church to apologize for its racist actions and teachings, just as other faith-based traditions have apologized. This is necessary is to disprove the prevailing notion that God “had His reasons” why humans denigrated and discriminated against other human beings based on race. When the Church refuses to give an apology, it leaves its millions of members left to question whether this was really God’s will rather than human racist actions.

Like most of us, I’m hoping to leave this world a better place for our children. I am not cursed. And I certainly don’t want my children growing up thinking or even hearing that they were cursed. [21]

The new essay is a monumental stepblack-jesus-blesses-the-children towards that direction.  What is left to be done? The essay’s disavowal needs to be taught for the general membership, included in Sunday School curriculum, sacrament talks, Ensign articles, and other sources.  We need to become comfortable with discussing the issue.  A year and a half after the essay’s release, a youth Sunday School teacher was released for teaching it.[22]  Discussing difficult and painful parts of our past is an unpleasant endeavor. Rabbi Abraham Heschel observed that a prophet “above all reminds us of the moral state of the people: Few are guilty but all are responsible.”  This is reflected publicly by the Lord in D&C 101:41 “Even many, but not all…were found transgressors, therefore they must needs be chastened.”

We need to rework our discussions surrounding the Lamanite curse and to eliminate any possible condoning of racism in the Book of Mormon and Pearl of Great Price.  Some ideas can be found in this series by David Tayman.

Although the essay has been introduced in institute manuals, how it is introduced is still problematic.  BYU Professor Margaret Blair Young excellently discusses that after the bold declarations of the essay, there is a temptation to make a U-turn.


Our new teachings of race need the explicit apostolic approval and authority of General Conference.  Only when the repudiation of a doctrine is as strong as the initial promulgation, will the disavowal become doctrine itself.  Until that point, the historical precedent still lives on.


[1] General Church Minutes, March 26, 1847.

[2] https://mormonheretic.org/2008/09/14/was-priesthood-ban-inspired/

[3] http://rationalfaiths.com/responsible-tell-unpleasant-stories-mormons-race/

Concerning the marriage of Enoch Lewis and Mary Webster, Brigham Young wrote, “If they were far away from the Gentiles they would all have to be killed-when they mingle seed it is death to all.  If a black man & white woman come to you & demand baptism can you deny them? The law is their seed shall not be amalgamated.

Mulattoes are like mules they can’t have children, but if they will be Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven’s sake they may have a place in the Temple.”
Turner, John G. Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet. 2012. Harvard University Press. Pg. 222

[4] “Manuscript History of the Church,” February 13, 1849, original, LDS Church Archives

[5] Millenial Star 13:63 (Feb 15, 1851)

[6] JD, 2:172 (February 18, 1855)

JD 2:184 (February 18, 1855); a separate discourse
JD, 10:250 (October 6, 1863).

[7] Genesis 9:30, Inspired Version

[8] Moses 5:52

[9] There is another, Cainan, son of Enos and father of Mahalaleel, was one of the patriarchs recorded in Genesis 5.  This is of the line of Seth, not Cain.

[10] Discussion between Lester Bush and Hugh Nibley.  On Writing Mormonism’s Negro Doctrine.  Journal of Mormon History. Spring 1999.

[11] Hugh Nibley. Abraham in Egypt. 1981. Page 134

[12] http://blog.fairmormon.org/2012/02/25/three-mormon-myths-about-blacks-and-the-priesthood/

[13] Acts 15, Galatians 2, and II Peter 3

[14] 6 – Renee Pyott Carlson interview, Gregory A. Prince, Potomac, Md., June 2 1994, (Kimball Papers), as referenced in Edward Kimball, Lengthen Your Stride, The Presidency of Spencer W. Kimball (working draft) chapter 21, page 9

[15] https://byustudies.byu.edu/content/spencer-w-kimball-and-revelation-priesthood

[16] Bruce R. McConkie, All Are Alike Unto God. 18 August 1978, BYU Speeches.

[17] Church News Jun 17, 1978.
Quinn, D. Michael, The Mormon Hierarchy: Extensions of Power, Appendix 5, Selected Chronology of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1848-1996,

[18] Bruce R. McConkie The Seven Deadly Heresies. Jun 01, 1980. https://speeches.byu.edu/talks/bruce-r-mcconkie_seven-deadly-heresies/

The cultism is a reference to polygamist fundamentalists who still held onto the doctrine, they having broken off before the doctrine as repudiated.

[19] In 1978 President Kimball said “Mormonism no longer holds to … a theory that blacks had … somehow failed God during their pre-existence”
In 1988 Elder Dallin H. Oaks stated in a news interview “The whole set of reasons [for the ban] seemed to me to be unnecessary risk taking… The reasons turn out to be man-made to a great extent.”

[20] Armand Mauss, Shifting Borders and a Tattered Passport: Intellectual Journeys of a Mormon Academic, (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2012), 109.

[21] http://www.darronsmith.com/2012/10/the-mormon-church-issue-an-official-apology-for-racist-teachings-that-declared-blacks-cursed/

[22] http://www.sltrib.com/lifestyle/faith/2475803-155/mormon-bishop-dismisses-teacher-for-using

[23] Quinn, D. Michael. 1997. The Mormon Hierarchy: Extensions of Power. Signature Books. pg. 14


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