Rejecting Mormon Folklore about the Former Restrictions on the Priesthood

My recent post on the recent common ancestors we probably all share challenges some once popular “Mormon folklore” attempts to explain the pre-1978 restrictions on the priesthood, the reasons for which were never explained. The reality is we all probably have some African blood in us, so the idea that restrictions on the priesthood were simply a matter of lineage don’t make a lot of sense. I can understand why we would struggle to come up with some kind of explanation, but the results may have been dead wrong. For example, back when there were restrictions on blacks holding the priesthood, many LDS whites heard and accepted the originally European teaching (probably developed to justify European slavery) that blacks were descendants of Cain, and then assumed that this was why they could not hold the Priesthood. It doesn’t matter how many people believed or taught this – it is not official Church doctrine and is not taught in the scriptures.

Many people have pointed to the Book of Abraham as providing the link between priesthood restrictions and descent from Ham and presumably back to Cain via Ham’s wife. There is no official LDS doctrine that explains why the Church had the policy – not doctrine – of temporarily limiting the priesthood by race. In their attempts to explain the policy, many LDS people, even leaders, sought to craft explanations to rationalize the practice. Some hypothesized that blacks might have been less valiant in some way in the premortal existence – an idea that is now repudiated, being utterly unjustified and non-doctrinal. More frequently, LDS people saw Abraham 1 as providing an explanation for the exclusion. But this is based on an erroneous interpretation of Abraham 1 and the LDS scriptures. Abraham 1 states that Pharaoh, a descendant of Ham, was of the lineage that did not have the “right of to priesthood.” It was assumed that Ham married a descendant of Cain – though the text does NOT say this – and that this (so the argument goes) is why Pharaoh could not have the priesthood. But wait a second: it doesn’t say that he could not have the priesthood, but that he could not have the “right of to priesthood,” [my original “to” was a typo, sorry!’] which actually refers to the right to preside as THE presiding officer, the patriarch. That right went to Shem, not Ham. Naturally, Ham’s descendants could not have that right, but they still could have the priesthood – nothing indicates they could not.

Alma Allred devastates those old myths in his chapter, “The Traditions of Their Fathers: Myth versus Reality in LDS Scriptural Writings” in the outstanding new book, Black and Mormon, edited by Newell G. Bringhurst and Darron T. Smith (Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 2004, 172 pages). I love this book, and especially enjoyed Alma Allred’s chapter. Here is an excerpt from pages 45-47:

Little doubt remains that intermarriage between Canaanites and Israelites destroyed any chance for a pure, non-Canaanite race among the chosen seed [see pages 40-45 for details]. One third of the house of Judah is Canaanite with an unknown portion among the other tribes. What then can we make of the curse pronounced by Noah and of Abraham’s comments that Pharaoh’s lineage could not have the “right of priesthood”? (Abr. 1:27). It may be that Mormons have simply misinterpreted those passages of scripture.

In the Book of Abraham, Abraham explains that he sought the blessings of the fathers and the right to be ordained to administer those blessings. He says that he became an heir holding the right belonging to the fathers. According to LDS theology, the right to administer the ordinances is held by the presiding priesthood authority on the earth. In the days of Abraham, that right was held by the presiding patriarch. It started with Adam and came in due course to Abraham. Abraham 1:3-4 stipulates that the appointment came by lineage. The right to preside was the birthright which went to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and finally to Ephraim.

According to these LDS scriptures, even though the priesthood did not remain exclusively with Ephraim, the right to preside did. Moses presided over Israel even though he was of the tribe of Levi. Joseph Smith, however, claimed to be a “lawful heir” because he was of the house of Ephraim (D&C 86:8-11). Since this authority was passed from father to only one son, when Noah gave it to Shem, Ham could not be the heir. Ham and Japheth, together with their descendants, did not have the right to administer the priesthood because it was given to Shem. Esau lost the right to Jacob. Reuben lost the right to Joseph. Manasseh lost that right when Jacob conferred it upon Ephraim. Each man who lost the birthright did not lose the right to be ordained to the priesthood; rather, he lost the right to preside as the presiding high priest in a patriarchal order. The scripture does not say that Pharaoh could not hold the priesthood; it says that he could not have the “right of priesthood” (Abr. 1:27). This right had been given to Shem, who in turn gave it to his successor in the patriarchal office.

Years after the right of priesthood had been passed to Abraham, the Pharaohs were feigning a claim to it from Noah. They did not merely claim priest- hood; they claimed the right to preside over the priesthood. Pharaoh, the son of Egyptus, established a patriarchal government in Egypt; but he was of that lineage by which he could not have the “right of priesthood” or “the right of the firstborn,” which belonged to Shem and his posterity. In response to the Pharaoh’s claims, Abraham states: “But the records of the fathers, even the patriarchs, concerning the right of priesthood, the Lord my God preserved in mine own hands” (Abr. 1:31; italics Allred’s). In other words, Abraham retained the right to preside over the priesthood.

The words right, priesthood, and lineage all prominently figure in Abraham’s history; and Joseph Smith used the same words to describe the appointment of his father, Joseph Smith Sr., as church patriarch:

Blessed of the Lord is my father, for he [Joseph Smith Sr.] shall stand in the midst of his posterity and shall be comforted by their blessings when he is old and bowed down with years, and shall be called a prince over them, and shall be numbered among those who hold the right of Patriarchal Priesthood, even the keys of that ministry. (Joseph Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 23; italics added by Allred)

Joseph Smith used the same words to later appoint his elder brother Hyrum as church patriarch after their father’s death:

And again, verily I say unto you, let my servant William be appointed, ordained, and anointed, as counselor unto my servant Joseph, in the room of my servant Hyrum, that my servant Hyrum may take the office of Priesthood and Patriarch, which was appointed unto him by his father, by blessing and also by right; (D&C 124:91; italics Allred’s)

This order of priesthood was confirmed to be handed down from father to son, and rightly belongs to the literal descendants of the chosen seed, to whom the promises were made. (D&C 107:40; italics mine)

Still, we should consider the curse pronounced upon Canaan. It parallels Jacob’s blessing pronounced by Isaac and, conversely, Esau’s curse. A side-by-side comparison of the two illustrates that Esau received the same curse as Canaan [Allred uses a table comparing Gen. 9:25-26 to Gen. 27:29].

Noah’s curse upon Canaan directly parallels Isaac’s promise concerning Esau. They both promised lordship to one son and servitude to the other. The ability to hold the priesthood was not the issue; it was the ability to preside in a patriarchal order that allowed only one lineage.

The revelation of 1978 announced by President Spencer W. Kimball giving all worthy men the privilege of holding the priesthood is consistent with the principles of LDS theology and essential to a consistent interpretation of its scripture. As recorded in the Doctrine and Covenants, Joseph Smith claimed that at some future day, high priests will be ordained out of “every nation, kindred, tongue and people” (D&C 77:13). It is impossible to have high priests from every nation while excluding Africans. Joseph Smith stated that, if the work progressed, we would see people of every color, including the African “Hottentots,” worship in the house of the Lord [History of the Church, 4:216]. . . .

Temple worship in LDS theology requires priesthood ordination for men. Consequently, Joseph Smith’s idea that “Hottentots” would soon worship in the temple is a de facto promise of priesthood ordination. Brigham Young got on the same bandwagon when he claimed in 1860 that the restriction would be lifted within one generation: “Children are now born who will live until every son of Adam will have the privilege of receiving the principles of eternal life.” [Brigham Young, July 8, 1860, Journal of Discourses, 8:116] There can be no doubt that this meant priesthood ordination to every male descendant of Adam, regardless of race.

Brother Allred concludes his article with a word of counsel to white members. Instead of trying to figure out what blacks did to be banned from the priesthood, perhaps white members should have been looking at themselves “to see if we were the primary hindrance.” (p. 48)

Heavy food for thought.

Author: Jeff Lindsay

12 thoughts on “Rejecting Mormon Folklore about the Former Restrictions on the Priesthood

  1. Prior to 1978, one also often heard the speculation that blacks were of Canaanite blood, a line that was cursed. In fact, the term Canaanite was often used as a synonym for blacks of African descent. However, as Allred points out, Canaanites were not black and were not African. Canaan was the fourth son of Ham, while Africans are traditionally associated with Cush, the first son of Ham. Canaan was the one “cursed” by Noah, not Cush (Gen. 9:21-25). Also note that Ham was not cursed for wickedness – Moses 8:27 specifically states that Ham and his brothers waslked with God like their father.

    There is also no link between Cain and the Canaanites. There is a land of Cainan in the Book of Moses that is probably the same as Canaan. That land was said to be a land of righteousness (Moses 6:42). Later, in vision, Enoch sees the future people of Canaan (Cainan?) destroy the people of Shum, after which the land is cursed with head and a blackness comes upon the children of Canaan, showing that this was NOT something they already had due to inherited genes from Cain or anyone else. There is simply no scriptural link between Cain and the Canaanites.

    Allred also shows that both Canaanite and Egyptian blood is scattered throughout the House of Israel. Abraham and Joseph each married an Egyptian. The partially Semitic Hyksos conquerors of Egypt were only in power 150 years, not long enough to span both Abraham’s day and Joseph’s. And Allred points out that historians agree that the Hyksos were a mixture of Semitic and Canaanite people.

    Later the birthright – the right to preside – is given to the son of a Canannite woman, even Ephraim, whom many Latter-day Saints view as their ancestor (literally or by adoption). Judan and Simeon also married Canaanites. Rahab in Jericho was allowed to join the Israelites and she bore Boaz, who was an ancestor of Christ.

    Marriage with Canaanites was forbidden, but there is no hint that those descended from Canaanites could not have the priesthood. The prohibition in Deut. 7:4 appears to be concerned with the fear that the outsiders will turn Israelites away to serve other Gods, not due to any concern about a cursed lineage per se.

    Deut. 23:7-8 also states that Edomites (who were Canaanites) and Egyptians (who were black) could be allowed to enter the congregation of Israel, with no hint of a curse. The great prophet Nathan, in fact, was descended from an Egyptian (1 Chron. 2:34-37), and Joseph Smith in Doctrine and Covenants 132:39 received a revelation that referred to Nathan as one who held the priesthood keys of the power to seal.

    Whatever Noah meant when he cursed Canaan, there is no hint that Canaan had anything to do with Cain, or that his descendants could not hold the priesthood at all. And there is no hint that God imposed a general curse on Africans that excluded them from the priesthood.

    Joseph Smith never cited the Book of Abraham to suggest there might be any limitations on those of African descent. The “right of the priesthood” that Pharaoh could not have because of his lineage was the patriarchal right to preside, not the ability to have the priesthood at all. Only one lineage could preside, and that right went to Shem. This is consistent with other teachings in the Doctrine and Covenants about the rights associated with literal descendants of Aaron.

    All we know for sure is that there was a policy – not dotrine – that apparently went into effect sometime in the 1840s that limited who could have the priesthood. Thank goodness that policy was revoked in 1978. Now we still have some work to do to root out the remnants of bogus folklore about the “seed of Cain” or the “curse on the Canaanites.” These folklore explanations make no sense, contradict scripture, and insult many of our brothers and sisters in Christ.

  2. Jeff writes:

    “Joseph Smith never cited the Book of Abraham to suggest there might be any limitations on those of African descent.”

    That’s probably because Joseph Smith didn’t mention a ban for Blacks at all, and in fact ordained Blacks to the priesthood; the ban came after Joseph Smith died.

  3. The only ban Joseph smith implemented was one on black slaves receiving he priesthood without permission from their slave owners. For that matter, they could not be baptised without permission either. How one became a policy and the other did not is beyond me.

    Jeff, I received a copy of the book to review as well and I was going to post a review on my blog tonight. You beat me to it. I think I will still post, however, because there are some specific points i wanted to cover.

  4. Kaimi makes an important point that I should have stated upfront, since it is not widely known among Latter-day Saints. There is no direct evidence from Joseph Smith’s day that he excluded blacks from the priesthood, though we have a statement from Brigham Young in 1847 stating that the policy came from Joseph Smith. I don’t think we should doubt President Young on that point.

  5. My personal belief is this: The enimies of the Church were good at getting others to act against the Saints by citing the “evils” of polygamy.

    Now, if the LDS Church, at that time, would have openly made African-Americans priesthood holders and leaders of the Chruch, imagine the additional hatered and violence that would have brought against the Chruch. I believe the combination of religious intollerance combined with racial intollerance could have resulted in much more death and violence against Church leadership and members. Possibly even to the point of destruction of the Chruch by its enimies.

    How many more would have BECOME enimies of the LDS Church then for the simple fact they allowed blacks to be leaders and preisthood holders? The racial tensions caused death and destruction for decades and decades even after the Civil War and almost destroyed the entire country, the early LDS Church and its members might have suffered “more then they were able to bear”.

    Maybe the ban was nothing more than an inspired Prophets (and thus, the Lords)way of not allowing the work to be destroyed.

    We all know the power of the masses destroyed the Church soon after Jesus’ death and assention. Maybe a critical mass of enimies, powerful enough to destroy the restored Church was avoided simply by not allowing African-Americans hold the priesthood and leadership in the Chruch.

    Do we not understand the power of Satan is limited or at least directly related to the number of humans who actively follow his guidance? As evidnece in the “binding and loosening” of Satan during the millenium.

    Just my thoughts.

  6. I myself have been working on an indepth essay on this subject for well over a year now (which is how I found this blog).

    Just as an FYI, in my own research I found it quite interesting to note that while the POGP uses the spelling of “Cainan” in Moses Chapter 6 and then “Canaan” in Moses Chapter 7, the JST (Inspired Version) continues to use “Cainan in both Chapters the whole time. This is extra noteworthy when you consider that the “changes” made by church leaders to the Book of Moses since Brigham Young’s death (who was adamently opposed to the JST) were all made to coincide/agree with the JST traslations of Genesis (rather than taking Brigham’s stance that the Pearl of Great Price version was better). By this action we may be able to assume that perhaps the JST is a better basis for judgement on this issue and believe that Canaan really is the same as Cainan because at least we know they changed the Book of Moses to agree with the JST, and there weren’t any changes made to the JST.
    Besides, there is no other mention of preflood “Canaan” and in the previous chapter it said the seed of Cain lived in a city they called Enoch (not to beconfused with the righteous City of Enoch). I am sure the two variant spellings are the same. Besides. . . Hebrew didn’t have vowels. . . so both would’ve been spelled Cnn the way Moses wrote it.

  7. Speaking of Cainan vs Canaan. . . IF they are speaking of the same people, then that means Moses 7:8 was speaking of the people of the son of Enos, son of Seth. Which means that Some of Seth’s seed had black skin, right? We also know that Moses 7:22 claims that the seed of Cain had black skin (whether this was inherited or not is up for debate if 7:8 is talking about Seth’s grandson). My question to anyone who reads this is: Moses 7:8 says the people of “Cainan/Canaan” were despised among all people. However, a few verses later (in the same vision) Enoch tells us that only the seed of Cain didn’t have place among the residue of the seed of Adam who were all mixed together.

    The question is this: Why would the seed of the son of Enos (people of Cainan) be mixed with the seed of Adam if they were despised of all people, but not the seed of Cain? If they were both black, then what was the difference? If Canaan is NOT Cainan afterall, then why did the unaltered JST leave chapter 7 spelled “Cainan”?

    It is a question that has held back the indepth essay I’ve been working on. No one in authority has even attempted to address the issue, and my Bishop is sending in a letter to the church office to attempt clarification. Anyone here have any ideas though? I really wish I could answer this and get past my first-draft.

    BTW Jeff, always been a long-time big fan of your main site with BOM evidences and questions answered, etc. Helped me HELP out someone who was REALLY struggling. Happy to find your blog!

  8. I have a good idea, why doesn't the current LDS Prophet pray and ask why? Then all the confusion could go away. Oh and it is hard to believe it was not because they were less valiant, even if you claim this is not doctrinal, you cannot ignore the fact that people are cursed with a black skin in the book of mormon for doing evil things. So obviously the thinking was if someone is doing bad things to curse them with black skin to distinguish them as step them aside to know they are bad people.

    Seriously come on people wake up!

  9. Jeff: Good comments, however, you state that in the book of Abraham is says Pharaoh could not have the right "to" Priesthood. Actually Abraham chapter 1:27 says right "of" Priesthood not right to Priesthood. The "right of Priesthood" is the right to hold and administer all of the keys to the kingdom which is different than the right to the Priesthood. All worthy males have the right to hold the priesthood, but only one person on the earth holds the "right of Priesthood". They are two completely different things. This is the birthright that Esau sold to Jacob – his right "of" Priesthood.

  10. Mollenhauer Guitars, can you please back read, jeff lindsay didn't said Right "to" the Priesthood but Right "of" the Priesthood….

  11. I did have a typo in the original with "right to" instead of "right of" in my comments, but "right of" is what I was trying to quote from Abraham 1:27.

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