Neither White nor Black
Lester E. Bush, Jr. and Armand L. Mauss, eds.
Whence the Negro Doctrine? A Review of Ten Years of Answers
Lester E. Bush, Jr.
In this concluding essay, Lester Bush synthesizes his own research and that of others during the past decade. Finding the relevant documentary resources much more conclusive than ten years previously, he briefly evaluates the merits of recent hypotheses on the origins of Mormon teachings and practices and then offers his own detailed analysis. He concludes with a brief analysis of the final years of the priesthood ban.
It’s now five years since the revelation of 1978 ended 131 years or more of Mormon priesthood discrimination against blacks. During this past half-decade, study of the “Negro doctrine” has lost both its urgency and, for many, its relevance. Yet few chapters in LDS history offer a more revealing window into the complexity of Mormon thought. At both the institutional and personal level, among rank-and-file as well as the elite, one finds in this singular subject a remarkable case study of the Mormon mind.
Historians, of course, have not abandoned the field. Articles, books, and even doctoral dissertations continue to appear, dealing with various aspects of the history of blacks and Mormons. Ronald K. Esplin, Newell G. Bringhurst, Ronald Coleman, and Armand Mauss in particular have brought important new data to light, while such disparate commentators as Klaus Hansen, Jan Shipps, Hugh Nibley, and Bruce R. McConkie have joined in the discussion.1
One persistently vexing question—and the one around which most recent controversy has centered—is that of when (and, thereby, why) the “Negro doctrine” actually originated. While the absence of a contemporary source specifically addressing this question explains part of the ongoing uncertainty, it also reflects at least two other problems: (1) a failure to consider systematically the wealth of relevant new data, and (2) a failure to distinguish analytically between the “practice” of priesthood restriction on the one hand, and the Negro “doctrine” which underlay this practice on the other.2 Given all the new data which has appeared in the [p.194] past decade, a history of the practice itself is now largely a straightforward descriptive exercise of what happened and when. One can come very close to providing final answers to these types of questions. The larger issue of doctrinal origins is more challenging and somewhat more subjective, though even here some observations can safely be made that partially reconcile the disparate recent commentary. Additional insights emerge from this early history which illuminate the recent demise of the priesthood ban as well as its origins.
A brief recapitulation of the arguments of the last few years will place the present analysis in perspective. When I looked into this issue over a decade ago, I was unable—despite over seventy years of previous unanimity in ascribing the priesthood restriction to Joseph Smith—to find any contemporary documentation that the Prophet implemented or even enunciated a general priesthood ban based on race. Brigham Young, by contrast, was unmistakably on record as espousing black priesthood denial no later than February 1849. The informal setting and casual wording of Young’s remarks at the time, however, raised the question whether this really was the first statement of the policy. A suggestion that a restriction may have been in effect as early as 1847 was noted in a June 2 letter by mission president William Appleby.3
Newell Bringhurst later reached essentially the same conclusion in both a 1975 doctoral dissertation on Mormon attitudes toward blacks from 1830 to 1880, and a derivative 1978 essay. The following year, however, historian Ronald Esplin provided what he termed a circumstantial case for the traditional view that the restriction originated with Joseph Smith. In so doing, Esplin cited a newly uncovered talk by Parley Pratt, 25 April, 1847, belittling those wayward Saints who would follow a “Black man who has got the blood of Ham in him which lineage was cursed as regards the Priesthood.”4
On the assumption that Pratt could only have learned of this implied restriction during the frenetic few preceding days at Winter Quarters (which Esplin judged unlikely), or prior to mid-1846-the times when Pratt and Young were together—Esplin felt comfortable pushing the apparent decision on blacks and the priesthood further back, “at least [to] 1843.” This final leap was supported by two circumstantial assumptions: first, that despite the seeming originality of some of his teachings Brigham never went beyond the doctrines of Joseph; and second, that teachings which cannot be documented as originating with Joseph probably were part of those secret “temple-related teachings” of which we currently have no available records. However plausible this sounded, its scholarly merits were greatly limited by both the circularity of the first claim, and the inaccessibility of the second.
Bringhurst, meanwhile, in his comprehensive Saints, Slaves, and [p.195] Blacks: The Changing Place of Black People Within Mormonism (Greenwood Press, 1981), willingly accommodated the new 1847 material (Esplin later provided him with yet another late-1847 indication of a restriction on blacks), but found no compelling reason to join Esplin in locating the practice of priesthood denial in an even earlier period. He particularly emphasized the seemingly pivotal role of the black-Indian “prophet” William McCary to whom Pratt referred in his April remarks and whose early 1847 confrontation with the Mormon hierarchy appears circumstantially to have catalyzed Mormon thinking on blacks and the priesthood.5
Other knowledgeable students of Mormon history, such as Klaus Hansen and Richard Howard—and, one senses, Bringhurst himself—were nevertheless uncomfortable with the apparent exoneration of Joseph Smith that the 1847 date would seem to imply. Howard, for example, in a review of Saints, Slaves, and Blacks, found it “difficult … to imagine that Young’s policies would have developed as they did … apart from the early antiabolitionist and racist positions of Mormonism’s founder,” while Hansen’s 1980 chapter on “The Transformation of Racial Thought and Practice” strongly supported the notion that “[Smith's] Book of Abraham is indeed the linchpin in the Negro doctrine.”6
With this as a backdrop let us turn to a chronology of what is now known of the key early events—a chronology which will show that there are few if any significant conflicts inherent in the data that Bringhurst (or I)—or Esplin—has presented, and the concerns of Hansen or Howard.
Development of Denial Practices
The Book of Mormon, published in 1830, clearly associated a “skin of blackness” with unrighteousness, though the subject was the ancestors of the Indians rather than Africans or others. In Joseph Smith’s revision of the Bible, begun the following year, the book of Moses asserted the same association between “blackness” and unrighteousness among antediluvian peoples and identified the descendants of Cain as “black,” (seemingly corroborating an early nineteenth-century notion that Africans were descended from Cain).7
Both the published and the private writings of early Church leaders concerned with the slavery-abolition debate left no question that they all—including Joseph Smith—accepted the conventional wisdom that blacks were descendants of Ham. Smith’s revision of the Bible eventually added to the discussion of the curse on Ham’s son Canaan that he had “a veil of darkness … cover him, that he shall be known among all men.” The most complete statement of black genealogy was a W. W. Phelps [p.196]letter in the March 1835 Messenger and Advocate, characterizing a “black skin” as a general indicator of apostasy and proposing that the “black seed” of Cain was passed through the Flood by Ham’s having married “a black wife.” While conceivably derivable from the extant book of Moses or contemporary folklore, this idea received its clearest apparent formal enunciation in the subsequent publication of the book of Abraham. Another relevant book of Abraham antecedent was suggested in Phelp’s allusion, “Were or were not Pharaoh’s ‘priests,’ (the real ‘black coats’ of Egypt …) the leaders of the great Gentile church in that day….”8
Elijah Abel, a black member converted in 1832, was ordained an elder in 1836 and a seventy later the same year. He was well-known to Joseph Smith and the Mormon community in Kirtland, Nauvoo, and after 1842 in Cincinnati. His activities but not his priesthood status were discussed in leadership meetings in June 1839 (attended by Joseph Smith and other leading Mormons) and June 1843 (attended by Apostles Heber C. Kimball, John Page, and Orson Pratt).
About the same time, book of Abraham passages noting that the lineage of the pharaoh was “cursed as to the priesthood” were translated (c 1837) and published (1842). This event logically related the priesthood curse to blacks, whom conventional wisdom, Phelps, and Mormons in general placed in the same basic lineage. On the other hand, as specifically set forth by Joseph Smith, this curse was a statement of historical circumstance, analagous to the related biblical curse of servitude placed on Canaan.
Notwithstanding the publication of the book of Abraham in 1842, there is as yet no contemporary evidence that Joseph Smith enunciated a policy of priesthood restriction on blacks, or that any other leading Mormon during the Smith presidency referred to one. Similarly, biblical texts also accepted as scripture by Joseph and his contemporaries which—given the received genealogical traditions—might have provided sanction for the institution of Negro slavery were disregarded as the Prophet spoke openly and repeatedly against legalized slavery in the 1840s (this despite his use of these very scriptures the previous decade in an attack on abolitionism).
Apostle Parley P. Pratt, speculating on the now discredited Kinderhook plates in May, 1843, was comfortable asserting that they were “filled with engravings in Egyptian language and contain the genealogy of one of the ancient Jaredites back to Ham the son of Noah …” thereby placing a once righteous, priesthood-bearing people into the potentially suspect lineage.9
At some point, apparently within a year or so prior to Joseph’s death, at least one other black member, Walker Lewis, was ordained an
[p.197] elder in Lowell, Massachusetts, reportedly either by Apostle William Smith or Parley Pratt. While the date of Lewis’s baptism and ordination is still uncertain, his support for local branch leaders was noted in passing by visiting Apostle Wilford Woodruff in November 1844.
June 1844-December 1847
The area in which Elder Walker Lewis resided was visited repeatedly during 1844-45 by leading Mormons, including Wilford Woodruff, Brigham Young, and Ezra T. Benson, without more than passing reference to the presence of a black elder. Records of Elijah Abel’s Cincinnati branch in June 1845 show him to have been active and a stalwart defender of the faith.
Apostle Orson Hyde delivered a speech in Nauvoo in 1845 which he said was given “by permission” and based on the “mysteries of the kingdom.” In it he referred to the “curse of slavery” resting on “Canaan, the son of Ham,” and asserted that spirits who in the pre-mortal existence “lent an influence to the devil … come into the world and take bodies in the accursed lineage of Canaan; and hence the negro or African race.” He warned his listeners, in the context of the Rigdon-vs.-the-Twelve debate, that “all those who are halting concerning who has the right to govern had better look at the fate of their brethren that have gone before them.” While no explicit reference was made to a priesthood restriction, a question was perhaps implicit about the right of those cursed with servitude to assume positions of leadership, an argument made explicitly by Brigham Young a few years later. The best candidate for a “mystery” in this talk was the novel assertion that the alleged status of blacks in the preexistence justified their current predicament. (Some years later Brigham repudiated this as an adequate explanation for the priesthood ban, and also rejected other Hyde innovations including a “baby resurrection” and, possibly, the notion of a “guardian angel.”)10
The troublesome, self-proclaimed black-Indian “prophet,” William McCary, arrived in Winter Quarters during the winter of 1846-47. While church leaders initially tolerated McCary’s bizarre activities, by late March he was clearly in trouble. In a revealing confrontation with Brigham Young, and Apostles Richards, Orson Pratt, Benson, Woodruff, and others on 26 March, 1847, Young informed McCary, “its nothing to do with the blood for of one blood has God made all flesh, we have to repent (and) regain what we av lost-we av one of the best Elders an African in Lowell [i.e., Walker Lewis].” McCary shortly after was expelled from the Mormon community but attracted some followers to his own curious schismatic brand of Mormonism.11
Amid the concerns surrounding McCary’s expulsion, Apostle Parley Pratt returned from a mission in England about 7 April. A week [p.198]later, on 14 April, Brigham left Winter Quarters with the vanguard enroute for Salt Lake City. Just a few days later Pratt, who with another returned Apostle, John Taylor, had been left behind to oversee Winter Quarters, delivered his notable comments mocking any Saint unfaithful enough to follow “this Blackman [McCary] who has got the blood of Ham in him which lineage was cursed as regards the priesthood.”12
Coincidentally, in May 1847, mission president William Appleby encountered Walker Lewis in his Lowell branch, noted his priesthood status and the infant offspring of his interracially married son, and wrote Brigham Young on 2 June, 1847, asking if it were “the order of God, or tolerated, to ordain negroes to the priesthood and allow amalgamation. If it is, I desire to know it as I have yet to learn it.” Under the date of May 19, but—according to Bringhurst—possibly not written until several years later, Appleby had noted in his journal that Lewis’ ordination was “contrary … to the order of the Church … as descendants of Ham are not entitled to that privilege.” (Appleby also had copied the relevant extract from the book of Abraham into his journal, shortly after it was published).13
Brigham Young, who left Winter Quarters for the Great Basin well before Appleby’s letter was written, apparently did not reply in writing. By the time Young returned to Winter Quarters, 31 October, Appleby also was there. Their presumed conversation is not recorded; but that Fall, Young was willing to rule, in Bringhurst’s paraphrase, “that blacks in general were ineligible to participate in certain temple ordinances.”14
Vacancies in the Quorum of the Twelve created by the reorganization of the First Presidency late in December 1847 were not filled until 12 February, 1849, when four new apostles were set apart. One of these, Lorenzo Snow, asked Brigham the following day prior to a leadership meeting about the “chance of redemption … for the Africans.” Young replied, in part, that “the Lord had cursed Cain’s seed with blackness and prohibited them the Priesthood.” This was, for years, the earliest known statement of priesthood denial to blacks; it remains the earliest explicit one.15
At least twice in January 1852, Young as governor addressed the Utah Territorial Legislature on the question of legalizing Negro slavery. His position, repeatedly and emphatically reiterated over the next decade, despite an apparent personal aversion to the actual practice, was that the scriptural injunction of Genesis was clear: “In as much as we believe in the Bible, inasmuch as we believe in the ordenances of God, in the Preisthood and order and decrees of God, we must believe in Slavery.” Moreover, “The seed of Canaan will inevitably carry the curse [of servitude] which [p.199]was placed upon them, until the same authority which placed it there, shall see proper to have it removed.”16 On February 4 he signed into law Utah’s “Act in relation to Service” formally legalizing African slavery in the territory. This act or its successors remained in effect until the Emancipation Proclamation a decade later.17
The day after signing the act on slavery, Young again addressed the legislature, dwelling at some length on the impropriety of allowing the “children of old Cain” to hold ecclesiastical or civil office. During this speech Young made what is perhaps the first clear public statement of the priesthood ban: “If there never was a prophet or apostle of Jesus Christ spoke it before, I tell you, 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 preisthood….” And, indeed, no leading Mormon throughout Young’s presidency is known to have attributed this teaching to anyone else nor did Brigham Young himself do so. The closest Young came to citing a source was in this same 5 February address: “They are the true eternal principals the Lord Almighty has ordained, and who can help it, men cannot, the angels cannot, and all the powers of earth and hell cannot take it off, but thus saith the Eternal I am, what I am, I take it off at my pleasure, and not one partical of power can that posterity of Cain have, until the time comes the [sic] says he will have it taken away.” The notion that a curse placed on Cain and his descendants was
the explanation of this policy, evident in Young’s comments both in 1849 and 1852, was found in virtually every one of his sermons or private comments on the subject. No other explanation, directly attributable to Brigham, has been discovered.18
The circumstances surrounding the origin of the Negro doctrine were discussed in the leading councils of the Church on several occasions during the last third of the nineteenth century. In 1879 several meetings were held in response to an incorrect report that Zebedee Coltrin, a contemporary of Joseph Smith, had said that Joseph taught that blacks could hold the priesthood. Coltrin in fact had said just the opposite, claiming to have been told by Joseph in 1834 that “the Negro had no right nor cannot hold the Priesthood.” Abraham Smoot, interviewed with Coltrin, volunteered his recollection that in 1838 and later, missionaries in the South had been advised that blacks (slaves?) were ineligible for the priesthood. While we can document an increasingly restrictive policy toward blacks in the South during these early years, Coltrin’s broader claims were effectively refuted by Joseph F. Smith who had seen Elijah Abel’s certification as a seventy, issued in 1841 and again in Salt Lake City. More damaging yet to Coltrin’s story was Abel’s correct recollection [p.200] that Coltrin himself had ordained him a seventy in 1836 and that Joseph had told him he was “entitled to the priesthood.” Abel’s status as a priesthood holder in 1836 was further verified by consulting his patriarchal blessing, given by Joseph Smith, Sr., that year. Acting president John Taylor, an apostle with Joseph Smith for five years, was unable to offer anything more than the opinion that “probably” Abel had “been ordained before the will of the Lord had been fully understood, [and] it was allowed to remain.”19
In the 1890s, others attributed the Negro doctrine to Joseph Smith but without the specific detail of Coltrin. While the subject does not appear to have been of much concern, at no time did anyone who had served as a General Authority with Joseph ascribe the priesthood ban to him. Franklin D. Richards, who had known the Prophet as a young man and who became an Apostle at the same time as did Lorenzo Snow in 1849, seems in 1896 to have credited the Negro doctrine to Joseph Smith. Snow, however, who had asked about the chances for “the Africans” very early remained uncertain whether Brigham had learned his views from Joseph or originated them himself.20
After 1900, it was generally accepted that Joseph originated the priesthood restriction on blacks.21
While not doing justice to the many subtleties in this history, this summary is probably sufficient to illustrate why the “when” and “where” of the priesthood ban is less a subject of confusion than it used to be. Notwithstanding the implied precedent of the book of Abraham, there was no hint of a practical concern about the priesthood status of Elijah Abel or Walker Lewis (or Ham’s “descendants,” the Jaredites!) through the mid-1840s. Indeed, substantial new evidence will be required to assert a policy of priesthood discrimination prior to the McCary encounter in early spring 1847. While some uncertainties remain, it presently appears that the policy of priesthood restriction crystallized in 1847, perhaps early in that spring but almost surely by fall. However, with no otherwise eligible black males at hand to prompt a public statement, what (probably little) discussion of the subject there was did not come until almost two years later in Utah by which time Brigham’s views were clearly quite solid. Actual publicizing of the ban came three years later, when a variety of changed circumstances led to public statements on both slavery and priesthood.22
Origins of the Doctrine
The question of the origin of the “Negro doctrine” as distinct from the practice of priesthood discrimination—the “why”—is much more complicated. Most past “explanations” have begun with the unexamined assumption that the practice began with Joseph Smith and have polarized [p.201] either into an “orthodox” view that God revealed the doctrine to Joseph or an “environmental” explanation that he originated it in response to the traumatic slave-related experiences in Missouri. In the absence of a concrete revelatory document on which to hang their claims, the orthodox—especially after the turn of the century—have cited the relevant book of Abraham passages and more recently the Coltrin account, plus the lengthening record of “inspired” reaffirmation by succeeding twentieth-century presidencies. In the absence of other support, exponents of the “Missouri thesis” were forced to rely on these same evidences,23 adding only the important observation that the bridge between contemporary blacks and the scriptural curses on Cain, Ham, Canaan, or the pharaohs was the nineteenth-century conventional wisdom that tied these lineages together.
Research over the past decade or so uncovered serious problems with the Missouri thesis and its implied timetable. A mid-twentieth century perspective on Joseph’s book of Abraham also found it insufficient to explain alone the advent of the Negro doctrine. Where faithful nineteenth-century minds had needed no explanation as to who comprised the modern descendants of Canaan, Ham, or Cain, this was no longer the case in 1970. The dismantling of the official orthodoxy on this subject has been detailed elsewhere.24 Ultimately all that remained was an unanchored assumption that the doctrine originated with Joseph Smith and that its continuation was God’s will. Since the revelation of 1978, one additional effort has been made in the “faithful” tradition to explain how and when Smith came to bar blacks from the priesthood-the Esplin hypothesis, which proposed without contemporary documentation that the Prophet reached this decision during a time when he was developing or elaborating on the more advanced temple rituals introduced at Nauvoo, during 1842-43.
Undermining the Missouri thesis also led to the formulation of more complex, less time-specific hypotheses by those who sought a possible nonrevelatory origin for the doctrine. The most extensive have been postulated by Hansen and Bringhurst. Hansen proposed as explanatory factors the sensitization of the Mormon leadership by their Missouri and Southern missionary experiences (a more broadly stated Missouri thesis); a developing “grandiose vision of the kingdom of God” into which “racial tolerance” fit less easily in terms of a scriptural injunction to maintain the purity of the chosen lineage; and concern about “the crisis of the family” and specific issues of “sex” and “miscegenation.” While Hansen also asserted that Joseph “believed” in a direct link between the scriptures including the book of Abraham and “the modern Negro,” he made no effort to document how either this assumption—or his other hypotheses—related in time or place to the many specifics known about the early history of blacks in the church. His essay, though built around an [p.202] occasional historical datum, was principally a theoretical exercise seeking to accommodate some of what happened to an existing conceptual framework.25
Bringhurst, who shares many of Hansen’s theoretical perceptions, was more specific as to time and circumstance in his analysis—and is thereby both more and less persuasive. He, too, found the metaphorical and sometimes literal racism of Mormon scripture a logical precursor to an increasing lineage consciousness among the early Mormons. While “whiteness” was perhaps symbolic, a quite literal “blackness” was associated with apostasy. This, Bringhurst felt, was both reflected in and generated by what he characterized as a major Mormon interest in “black Biblical counterfigures”-Cain, Ham, and Canaan. Concepts relating to these “counterfigures” in the books of Moses and Abraham were said to have “paved the way for implementation of black priesthood denial.” While there was “little to suggest” that this policy was implemented “during the 1830s,” these sources “would in time provide scriptural justification for these practices.” Against this backdrop Bringhurst found also what he described as a “deterioration” after 1839 in the practical circumstances of blacks in both Mormon mind and community. And finally, he singled out as important the apparent social awkwardness of black elder Abel’s priesthood presence among the Mormons and the scarcely veiled threat of black prophet McCary’s priestly claims. While apprehensions relating to sex/miscegenation also figured prominently in Bringhurst’s analysis, he suggested, because of the timing of the key Appleby letter, that these concerns served principally as an after-the-fact reinforcement to a decision taken shortly before.26
Notwithstanding the unanchored nature of Hansen’s generalities and an ill-defined awkwardness of focus to Bringhurst’s discussion, several of their postulated explanations seem to have real merit. Others are less persuasive. There appear also to be at least two conspicuous omissions: there is no in-depth consideration of either the relevant Mormon scriptures or of the personalities that interpreted them.27 Another important problem with both works is a failure to analyze systematically—or occasionally even distinguish between—predisposing but insufficient early factors and those crucial later developments that led more or less directly to the priesthood ban.
It may be instructive to consider again the several relevant factors chronologically. Most will be seen to have taken place during the lifetime of Joseph Smith, thus explaining much of the later, retrospective identification of the Prophet as originator of the doctrine. In a sense this later judgment will be seen to be correct—despite Joseph’s perhaps intentional failure to implement a policy of priesthood restriction.
As noted previously, publication of the Book of Mormon in 1830 [p.203] reinforced the popular early nineteenth-century notion that racial characteristics could be traced directly to the moral calibre of various civilizations. Lamanites became “black” as they became depraved. Depravity, in turn, followed directly on the heels of apostasy. The entire process, however, was reversible; repentant peoples could again become “white and delightsome.”28 This popular contemporary assumption would not have been startling news to reasonably well-informed early readers of the Book of Mormon, nor were these points excessively emphasized in the Nephite history. They were rather passing illustrations indicative, with many other offered “proofs,” of God’s literal hand in the lives of both individuals and societies. More conspicuous by far was the theme of the gospel’s universal message: it was for “all nations, kindreds, tongues, and people,” extending not only to “black and white, bond and free, male and female,” but also to “heathen … Jew and Gentile.”29
Joseph Smith’s revision of the Bible, undertaken later that year, continued in 1831 and was partially published in 1832. It introduced hundreds of changes or expansions into the text of the King James translation. Of these, three were related directly to “color” in contexts paralleling (but not even as central as) those relating to the subject in the Book of Mormon. Once again these passing additions would simply have confirmed opinions already held by many early nineteenth-century readers: “the seed of Cain” were “black,” a “blackness came upon all the [explicitly unrighteous] children of Canaan,” and Ham’s cursed son Canaan was said to have had “a veil of darkness … cover him, that he may be known among all men.” Noah’s curse itself was left unchanged; Canaan was to be a “servant of servants” to his brethren.30
Any possible historical uncertainty about which contemporary group the early Mormons equated with cursed, black biblical lineages is emphatically clarified by the extensive antiabolitionist discourses carried in the April 1836 Messenger and Advocate. Among many other arguments Warren Parrish, Oliver Cowdery, and Joseph Smith each affirmed, in Smith’s words, that “the curse is not yet taken off the sons of Canaan, neither will be until it is affected by as great power as caused it to come.”31 Perhaps reflecting some of the lingering Christian Primitivist phase of early Mormonism—or a diversity of opinion among the members—Joseph and the others added that the expressed opinions were the “sentiments I believe, as an individual.”32 It was, however, precisely this biblically-derived antiabolitionist phraseology in Joseph’s essay which Brigham Young later used in calling for a legalization of Negro slavery in Utah. That the association of Negroes with Ham, Cain, or Canaan’s curse of servitude had no necessary implications for free blacks was evidenced by the concurrent ordination of Elijah Abel to the priesthood and his participation in the early rituals initiated in the Kirtland Temple. [p.204] Nonetheless, Mormon sensitivities over the national slavery issue were substantially heightened by experiences in Missouri and elsewhere, as evidenced by a concurrent policy change limiting proselyting among slaves.33
Directly in the wake of these on-going developments came Joseph Smith’s efforts to provide a translation of the Egyptian papyri recently acquired by himself on behalf of the Church. In retrospect, this proved a singularly pivotal effort in the history of what was to become the “Negro doctrine.” However, while the resulting book of Abraham was ultimately to provide the proof-text for a policy of priesthood discrimination, one needs to examine the record closely before assuming it served this function either in the preparation phase (c1837) or at the time of publication (1842).
It is important to recall that despite the seeming novelty of the new scripture, much of it, as with the case of the book of Moses, was probably not substantively startling to those close to the Prophet when it was first written nor to the general membership five years later when parts were published. A major portion of the text was, after all, a relatively modest embellishment of the accepted Genesis account of creation.34 Abraham admittedly figured much more prominently, but those familiar with the popular, contemporary editions of Josephus’ Complete Works were already advised of Abraham’s instrumental role, for example, in instructing the Egyptians in the “science of astronomy.” Josephus’ passing reference to “Egyptus” as an early Egyptian pharaoh, and Phelps’s published proposal shortly before (noted above) on the Cain-Canaan genealogy would further have preempted the novelty (but none of the new prophetic authority) of Joseph’s scripture.35
What was distinctively new in the book of Abraham was a creation account which accommodated a more fully developed Mormon theology and an extensive “midrash” concerned with the developing Mormon notion of priesthood authority. It was this latter textual expansion that included the references later central to the rationale for priesthood denial to blacks. The relevant verses, speaking of the pharaoh’s ineligibility for the priesthood and various, often unspecified curses, unquestionably would have been understood as referring to the remote ancestors of African blacks. Canaanites, Hamites, and ancient Egyptians were all part of this same basic lineage. Yet these retrospectively prominent explanatory and genealogical points were not as doctrinally significant or central as other major points in the text.
The story of the Pharaoh’s priesthood limitation was more particularly a vehicle for a message about authentic priesthood authority than a message about priesthood exclusion based on race per se. It clearly could have been both—and ultimately it was understood to be—but there is no [p.205] necessary reason to assume this was originally the case or intent, or that if it were so in 1837, it still was so viewed in 1842. Possibly analagous, for example, was a related discussion in 1841 just a few months before the book of Abraham was published and the same year Elijah Abel was recertified as a seventy. In this discussion, the Prophet asserted that Canaan had been cursed with servitude “by the priesthood which [Noah] held, and the Lord had respect to his word, notwithstanding he was drunk.”36 Here the specifics of Joseph’s illustration were clearly secondary to an underlying message about the power of the priesthood. In a real sense this very curse had to be discounted or explained away in some manner parallel to the case in point by all who supported abolishing slavery, for even among abolitionists the Ham-African genealogy was rarely in dispute. In 1836 Joseph appears not to have viewed the curse on Canaan in anything but literal, contemporary-relevant terms, but he apparently had changed his mind by the early 1840s when he began to speak out strongly against slavery.
Thus, while it is possible that Joseph contemplated denying blacks the priesthood at the time the earliest book of Abraham texts were in preparation—or at least considered this a rational implication of the text—it is highly relevant to note that he never publicly espoused this potential application of his scripture. Indeed, the very issue of the Times and Seasons in which these texts were first published also contained the first of Joseph’s public proabolitionist, antislavery commentary.37 In sum, at present we cannot confidently say what Joseph understood the implications of the book of Abraham to be for contemporary blacks, at any time between 1837 and his death in 1844. We can only say, as detailed previously, what we know about what he did in actual practice.
The elaboration of Mormon theology did not end with the advent of the book of Abraham. While later discussions of the “Negro doctrine” often end there, doctrinal developments in the final years of Joseph Smith’s presidency were also relevant. In particular Esplin has focused attention on the new temple rituals, introduced and expanded in Nauvoo in the 1840s. While there may well be merit in linking black policies with temple development, it is still difficult to believe—given the apparent chronology of the actual practice—that a concrete policy of priesthood denial to blacks dated much before spring 1847. Nonetheless, the implications of earlier temple-related developments were probably relevant to priesthood denial to blacks and the underlying “Negro doctrine.”
Joseph Smith’s early view of the role of the temple, though perhaps initially elitist, was highly democratized by the time the first temple was dedicated in 1836.38 This was reflected both in the inclusive “house rules” governing those in attendance and Elijah Abel’s participation in the sacred ordinances introduced there.39 Indeed, if any of the specifics of [p.206] Zebedee Coltrin’s later recollections can be credited, a likely candidate is his statement that Abel was ordained to the priesthood because of his work on the temple. In the context of the universalism of the Book of Mormon, the highly inclusive lay structure of both the Mormon leadership and its salvation/exaltation theology, and the view that the millennium was virtually at hand, Abel’s efforts probably were sufficient to overcome what must have been substantial social and cultural impediments to his being made (in the words of his patriarchal blessing) “equal to thy brethren.”40
In the early 1840s, however, new temple rituals were introduced which, partly for social reasons, were much more exclusivist. These rituals were now intimately associated with another theological innovation: unorthodox and culturally suspect marriages between Mormon leaders and “celestial” or “spiritual” wives. There are a number of grounds on which one might reasonably argue that Joseph and his close advisers would have excluded blacks from these more sensitive and exclusive ordinances (if not from the priesthood per se), but there is no evidence that this was formally done. It is relevant to recall that by 1842 there were no longer any candidate blacks in the Nauvoo community. Abel had moved to Cincinnati in 1842, before the introduction of these later temple rituals.
A “democratization” of the more exclusive Nauvoo temple ordinances, or “endowments,” probably envisioned by Joseph before his death, was carried out in practice in the years between the martyrdom and the exodus. Had there been eligible blacks petitioning for these “endowments” and marriage “sealings,” a decision on black eligibility might have been forthcoming, but, as noted, there were none. Almost concurrent with the democratization of the endowment had been the implementation of yet another new, again exclusivist “second endowment” which unconditionally crowned selected initiates to be “gods.” (In the first, they were “only” set apart conditionally to become gods.)41 Given the sensitization of Mormon leaders by the escapades of McCary and the miscegenation of the Lewis family, it would not be hard to envision a policy restricting blacks thereafter from one or all of these Nauvoo-era temple ordinances—especially this “capstone” ritual—as suggested by Esplin’s fall 1847 reference. By then there also had been other significant changes in perspective.
One key change seems to have been the degree of literalism with which some of the scriptures relating to blacks were understood and applied. Within a year of Joseph’s death the Times and Seasons was again condemning blacks to divinely sanctioned servitude on the basis of a culturally conditioned, literalistic, scriptural interpretation of Genesis implicitly rejected by Joseph Smith.42 The most striking illustration of [p.207] this, of course, came with Brigham Young’s assertion just a few years later that he had to believe in Negro slavery because he believed in the Bible.43 As originator of the book of Abraham and of a variant revision of the Bible, Joseph clearly had the authority and confidence to interpret or reinterpret these scriptures in a way that modified the apparent “clear” meaning of the texts—and by implication he did so by not applying either to the actual practice of Negro slavery or priesthood eligibility. His successors seem not to have felt this same flexibility, and returned to a more literal (in a nineteenth-century context) reading of the texts.44
An obvious and clearly relevant illustration of this new or renewed literalism is found in the first known suggestion of a policy of priesthood restriction. The wording of Parley Pratt’s 1847 characterization of McCary as having the “blood of Ham in him which lineage was cursed as regards the priesthood”—whether descriptive or proscriptive.46 It is difficult to imagine that it would not have been, once the decision or interpretation had been made that the scriptural curses were still in effect.
Another relevant change between the pre-and post-Joseph Smith years, albeit a subtle one when viewed from 1983, is a clear deterioration in the way in which blacks were characterized by individual Mormon leaders. Prejudiced though all the early years may have been by modern standards, it is important to recall that where Brigham believed “nature” (as well as “nature’s God”) had prepared blacks only for servitude, Joseph apparently believed the status of blacks was environmentally mediated—and proposed placing them on a national equalization. Whatever Joseph’s prejudices or true intent, he apparently never made a public statement parallel to Brigham’s spring 1847 condemnation of his pioneer elders for abusing their priesthood by “stoop[ing] to dance like nigers.”47
It is thus in a much richer context that one must consider such reasonably well-supported suggestions by Hansen and Bringhurst as the idea that growing lineage self-consciousness among the early Mormons also played an important role in the implementation of priesthood denial to blacks. While this no doubt was true, both it and their other suggestions were all threads in a demonstrably more complex fabric.
When Brigham finally made explicit the grounds for priesthood denial to blacks, he was very specific as to these grounds—and reiterated his explanation many times during the next two and half decades. As descendants of Cain, blacks were not entitled to the priesthood or to p.208] participation in sacred temple ordinances.48 Given the complex developments outlined above, his realization that this was the case must surely have been the product of many factors. The sine qua non was no doubt the full scriptural legacy left by Joseph Smith. For Brigham, one surmises, no further revelation beyond the extant scriptures was necessary, as none had been on the issue of black servitude. While there may have been a time when this scriptural insight was not so self-evident, intervening events had brought it into clearer focus. Once in focus there never was any further question.
In a very real sense, Joseph Smith had provided a context which, in his absence, inevitably led to a policy of priesthood denial to blacks. Whether this would have occurred had Joseph not been killed is debatable. He apparently had not felt it necessary to implement such a policy despite the precedents provided while he lived, but later developments may have changed his mind. It seems very unlikely that Brigham and his colleagues perceived themselves as moving away from Joseph’s lead, but they may well have felt they were carrying it forward to its logical application.49
The Concluding Chapter
It may be instructive to consider briefly some events in the later years of the priesthood restriction. Some of the final developments may be understood somewhat more clearly in terms of the foregoing history.
Up to the mid-1880s, the Pearl of Great Price was not cited conspicuously in explanation of church policy on black restrictions. It would have been very relevant but was also unnecessary for it merely affirmed an association that was not in dispute. When the Pearl of Great Price did come into vogue as a proof-text for church teachings, it ironically was only anachronistically relevant. While it appeared to provide key evidence, in fact it had been reduced logically to a mere link in a circular argument. Since conventional wisdom no longer linked blacks to the ancient biblical lineages, the Pearl of Great Price was called upon to do so. In essence, modern blacks were asserted to be the descendants of Cain and Ham because modern blacks were those against whom the ancient priesthood ban was still in force; it was enforced against them because they were descendants of Cain and Ham. A similarly circular argument soon matched in popularity that of the Pearl of Great Price. This was the notion that blacks were denied the priesthood because of some inadequacy in the preexistence; the evidence for the inadequacy was that they were denied the priesthood. By the time these twentieth century innovations became popular, a long-established tradition of authoritative priesthood denial readily bridged the breach in logic, much as conventional wisdom about black genealogy had done so a century earlier.
In the final analysis, three principle factors sustained the priesthood [p.209] ban in the twentieth century. In order of descending relevance, these were the authority of decades of vigorous and unwavering First Presidency endorsement of the policy; a preconceived and highly literalistic reading of several verses in the Pearl of Great Price; and an ambient culture which was indifferent to, if not supportive of, Mormon attitudes toward blacks. As formidable as these factors were, they were not the only influences at work.
Some of the very forces, initially set in motion by Joseph Smith, which originally led to the denial of the priesthood to blacks, eventually also helped assure that this ban would come to an end. In particular the central and essential role assigned to the temple in Mormon theology, and the pattern of progressive democratization of even the most exclusive of its rituals seem to have been major contributing factors at every significant step along the way. It was Elijah Abel’s work on the Kirtland temple that apparently overcame whatever socio-cultural obstacles existed and led to his priesthood ordination. The institution of more culturally sensitive rituals with their connotations of unorthodox marriages, and their extension to rather large segments of the Mormon community was likely associated with the decision to deny to blacks both these rites and the priesthood which had come to assure access to them. A century later concern that black members in the vicinity of a South Pacific temple be allowed access to by-then much less sensitive temple rituals prompted one of the first serious reviews of church teachings on blacks in decades.50 While no change in policy was made, just two decades later a similar review was prompted by the efforts of black members in the construction of yet another temple in Brazil; this time the decision was made that these worthy workers—like Elijah Abel 142 years before—be allowed to hold the priesthood so that they might enjoy the blessings of the temple.
A second major force set in motion by Joseph Smith was embodied in his notion of the universality of the gospel. This idea appears repeatedly in the Book of Mormon, in early Mormon sermons and hymns, the rules governing the Kirtland Temple, and the prospectus anticipating the opening of the Nauvoo temple. Mormonism, at least in theory, was a nationally and racially inclusive movement. Though apparently driven to a more self-conscious, exclusivist leadership style during its years of persecution, the heritage was still there. When the millennium didn’t bring the nations of the earth flocking to Zion, Zion eventually sent forth its missionaries to the nations—with all their kindreds, tongues, and peoples. Eventually temples came to be built in areas where the cursed lineage was inextricably intertwined with the chosen. Black members in the international church figured prominently in leadership discussions in nearly every decade of the twentieth century. As noted, these were apparently temple-related discussions in the later ’40s and again in 1978 [p.210] when the priesthood ban finally came to an end.51
A final factor contributed by Joseph Smith to the ultimate termination of the priesthood ban was the exact wording he chose to use in setting forth the book of Abraham. While it can also be argued, as I did above, that this was part of the scriptural corpus which led to the implementation of the priesthood ban in the first place, in another sense it worked against its continuation. The problem was that, whatever the intent, the bridge that linked the cursed lineages of old to modern blacks was never made explicit in the book of Abraham. It would have been awkward, if not flagrantly anachronistic, to have done so, potentially undermining the antiquity ascribed to the whole endeavor. Given the conventional wisdom of the day, at the time it was also at the least unnecessary. When an explicit link was necessary a century later, it wasn’t there—and the book of Abraham text itself thereby came to be used as evidence of its inapplicability to modern blacks.52
Why were these influences insufficient in the late 1940s, mid-1950s, or the mid-1960s when changes in policy received serious consideration—but adequate just a decade later?53 The answer to this, I believe, lies with those three principal obstacles to change noted above: the authority (and by implication, integrity) of the First Presidency, an archaic reading of the Pearl of Great Price, and the cultural milieu.
Changes in the cultural milieu over the past three decades are both well known and well documented elsewhere. A rough indication of the transition which took place can be found within the Church by contrasting Apostle Petersen’s 1954 attack on early civil rights advocates, “Race Relations as They Affect the Church,” with statements by the First Presidency on the general subject in the next three decades. Embarrassing though the record may be, Mauss has shown that it was no more so than that of society at large.54 The point is not to excuse this record but to note that no national hue and cry was to be expected from the 1949 First Presidency affirmation of church beliefs on blacks, and none was received. Two decades later, a much more “progressive” statement, including an endorsement of civil rights and shorn of the more offensive allusions to curses on Cain, was greeted with a great deal of national criticism if not overt hostility. The ascendancy to power in the Church of those preoccupied with its public image during the past decade or so amplified the effect of this realignment of the societal norms in which Mormonism operated. A variety of nondoctrinal accommodations ensued—reported elsewhere by Mauss—designed to enhance the image of Mormonism on the race issue. The process also prepared the membership itself for a radical change on the more fundamental issue of the priesthood ban. Thus the impact of the cultural milieu swung around to be just the opposite to that of a few decades before.
[p.211] An inherent flaw in the use of the book of Abraham—the second major obstacle—as proof of the legitimacy of the “Negro doctrine” has been noted already. Several observers have suggested that even more serious was an attack in the late ’60s on the whole notion of the historical authenticity of the book of Abraham. This argument derived from the discovery of fragments of the papyri which purportedly underlay key segments of the Abraham narrative. While this development may have affected a few “intellectuals” who were troubled over Church policy, it is doubtful that it swayed anyone of importance in the Church leadership. As difficult as it may have been to consider abandoning Church beliefs on blacks, this would surely have paled before the prerequisite task of discarding a formally canonized scripture. Concluding that the scripture previously had been misunderstood or misapplied was certainly more palatable—especially when this could be accomplished by implication, as in practice it actually was, though the simple omission of the timeworn book of Abraham argument from the formal defense of the priesthood ban.
How Church leaders came to conclude that the book of Abraham was not necessarily as relevant as previously thought is a question which cannot be completely answered at present. Little to nothing has been said publicly, and private insights may not be available for a number of years. One surmises that some leaders, such as Hugh B. Brown and possibly David O. McKay, had reached this conclusion in the ’60s if not earlier. Others apparently were influenced by more recent scholarly examinations of the subject and their own resulting studies. In 1975, for example, one General Authority wrote privately that the historical work of the previous few years “probably has a far greater effect than [has been] acknowledged … or evidence[d]. Recent conversations suggest that this is so.” Significantly, however, one who initially was apparently not impressed was President Kimball who continued to offer the book of Abraham as a proof-text for church policy as late as 1976.55
Even at the end, not every General Authority had abandoned the traditional beliefs. Apostle Bruce R. McConkie, for example, was widely commended for his humility when, shortly after the revelation, he called upon seminary and institute teachers to “forget everything I have said … that is contrary to the present revelation,” adding that “it doesn’t make a particle of difference what anybody ever said about the Negro matter before the first day of June 1978.” The misimpression was created that he was disavowing much of his own extensive, though archaic dogma on the subject. As events have transpired, it is apparent that he had discarded only the claim that blacks would not be allowed to hold the priesthood in this lifetime—a modest enough concession under the circumstances. The next published version of his Mormon Doctrine, [p.212] though incorporating word of the revelation, retained all the previous, traditional assertions about blacks. That this was no editorial oversight was made clear when McConkie published an expanded version of the seminary and institute talk in Priesthood, a collection of essays, in 1981. In setting the stage for his 1978 address, he had added, in part, “The ancient curse is no more. The seed of Cain and Ham and Egyptus and Pharaoh—all these now have power to rise up and bless Abraham as their father. All these, gentile in lineage, may now come and inherit by adoption all the blessings of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” Blacks thus were descendants of Cain after all!56
At another extreme of this apparently multi-cornered spectrum resides defender-of-the-faith Hugh Nibley who unfortunately failed ever to publicly address Church teachings on blacks in the context of his book of Abraham studies. Now that the point is moot, he has published a new work, Abraham in Egypt (1981), which comes close to arguing that the Church never believed there was such a connection in the first place. “Why was Pharaoh … denied that priesthood which he ‘would fain claim from Noah, through Ham’(1:27),”asks Nibley. “Certainly not because of Ham, ‘a just man (who) walked with God’….” Rather, he continues, it was because he traced his claim through the “matriarchal line” rather than the “patriarchal.” “In all of which,” concludes Nibley, “there is no mention of race, though enemies of the Church have declared with shock and outrage that these passages are proof of Mormon discrimination against blacks.”57
The fading of the final remaining obstacle is probably the most difficult to access. The weight of many decades of authoritative reaffirmation of Church policy on blacks by the First Presidency created not only a self-perpetuating inertia but also posed a difficult obstacle to a radical change. A comparable change in Church policy on polygamy had been internally divisive and seemingly had undermined rather than enhanced the authority of the leadership. But the analogy to the Manifesto, though commonly drawn, is not really a very good one. The personal price paid by Mormons who entered into polygamous relationships and by those who were asked to abandon them were surely orders of magnitude greater than the intellectual and social awkwardness associated with a very belated, latter-day accusation of racism by only recently sensitized critics.
On the other hand, an accelerating tradition of leadership infallibility had been allowed to develop which largely dictated how any change might take place. No portion of the general tradition formally sanctioned by the First Presidency could be comfortably, affirmatively renounced. Thus, portions of the 1949 statement on blacks and the priesthood were simply omitted from the 1969 statement, thereby defining the new limits of church belief implicitly but without explicitly dealing with the discarded [p.213] material. Similarly, the final First Presidency statement announcing the end of the priesthood ban in 1978 made no comment about the substance and legitimacy of any previous statement or belief. A revelatory experience was alluded to, the priesthood made available to all “worthy males,” and the subject quietly but firmly declared dead.
Could this not have been done a decade earlier? Mauss presents data that suggests it almost was. He also suggests—correctly, I believe—that a major obstacle was concern on the part of the Church (i.e., the First Presidency) that this would have had the appearance of giving in to public pressure as the abandonment of polygamy clearly did. Thus no action was taken for almost a decade, by which time there was much less external agitation. Significantly, however—and perhaps providentially—during the interim the stature and authority of the First Presidency was asserted in unprecedented ways, through the canonization at their direction of new scripture. While the texts involved were neither new nor controversial, this action, I believe, was probably as significant as all the preparatory public relations efforts, for it effectively established the “authority” context within the Church for the abandonment of the priesthood ban.58
When the definitive analysis of the demise of the “Negro doctrine” is finally possible, I expect it to be a very complex weave, with the factors which came close to ending it in earlier years not necessarily those which ultimately led to the revelation of 1978. As in the beginning, there will no doubt be predisposing as well as precipitating factors, some of which will change while others continue to influence things. Some factors will be both predisposing in a general sense and precipitating in a specific application. The predisposing factors associated with the international church and the temple, for example, were jointly present from midcentury on. Those associated with the cultural milieu began a little later, and grew dramatically after 1970. These developments all pressed in one direction. Insights into the limits of the Pearl of Great Price, however, seem to have waxed and waned with the changing of key personalities throughout this period. Where this scripture may not have posed a major hurdle in the ’60s, it appears to again have done so by the mid-’70s. Whether this view again changed in the final months or whether the force of the other factors-notably the compassion felt for blacks laboring for a temple in Brazil—simply carried the day has yet to be learned.
What is clear is that some combination of factors led President Kimball to conclude that it was time for a change prior to his revelation. One of the few notable things he has volunteered about the priesthood revelation of 1978 is that it was one of confirmation of a decision already reached.59 Brigham apparently faced an analogous situation about 130 years earlier in a context of similar predisposing and precipitating factors. One can only wish he had sought a similar confirmation before acting on [p.214] the conclusions he had reached about Cain and Ham—or, if he did so, that he had left a record of it along with the unfortunate policy legacy which resulted.
1. Excluding newspaper and newsmagazine articles, about forty such essays related to some aspect of Mormons and blacks have appeared since the priesthood revelation in 1978. Several will be cited in this essay, and a comprehensive listing is included in “Chronological Bibliography on the Negro Doctrine,” elsewhere in this volume.
2. Newell G. Bringhurst, the most prolific writer on this subject, comes closest to making this distinction in his comprehensive Saints, Slaves, and Blacks: The Changing Place of Black People Within Mormonism (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1981). At no point, however, does he offer a focused analysis of this important issue.
4. Newell G. Bringhurst, “‘A Servant of Servants … Cursed as Pertaining to the Priesthood’: Mormon Attitudes toward Slavery and the Black Man 1830-1880,” Ph.D. dis., University of California, David, 1975, p. 121, and “An Ambiguous Decision: The Implementation of Mormon Priesthood Denial for the Black Man—A Re-examination,” Utah Historical Quarterly 46 (Winter 1978): 47, 62-63; Ronald K. Esplin, “Brigham Young and Priesthood Denial to the Blacks: An Alternate View,” BYU Studies 19:394-402. The Pratt quotation is from minutes, 15 Apr. 1847, Brigham Young Papers, Historical Department Archives, hereafter cited as LDS Church Archives Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
5. Bringhurst, Saints, Slaves, and Blacks, especially chapter five. Bringhurst paraphrases Esplin, without specific citation, as stating “Brigham Young … during the fall of 1847… suggested that blacks in general were ineligible to participate in certain temple ordinances.” (p. 86)
6. Richard Howard, review of Saints, Slaves, and Blacks in The John Whitmer Historical Association Journal 2 (1982): 63-64; Klaus Hansen, Mormonism and the American Experience (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1980), p. 187, and Chapter 6 in general.
7. Hugh Nibley, Since Cumorah: The Book of Mormon in the Modern World (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1967), pp. 246-51, argued that this “blackness” was to be understood only symbolically, but nineteenth-century Mormon commentary indicates a quite literal understanding of the term. E.g., Messenger and Advocate 1 (Mar. 1835): 81-82, and Times and Seasons 6 (Apr. 1845): 857.
8. Messenger and Advocate 1 (Mar. 1835): 81-82. This letter, dated 6 Feb. 1835, also anticipates another theological innovation later found in the book of Abraham in its assumption about preexistence, but this idea was evident in then extant but unpublished portions of Joseph Smith’s revision of the Bible.
10. “Speech of Elder Orson Hyde, Delivered before the High Priests Quorum, in Nauvoo, April 27th 1845 …” (Liverpool, 1845). Similarly, this same month the Times and Seasons (6:857) carried “A Short Chapter on a Long Subject,” which also moved away from Joseph’s recent position by affirming that the servitude of blacks was a “curse of God” and one of the “decrees of eternal wisdom.” Esplin, “Brigham Young,” p. 398, disregards the fact that the only “curse” identified in Hyde’s remarks was the “curse of slavery,” and argues that they reflect knowledge of a priesthood ban at this early date. For Brigham’s rejection of Hyde’s neutrality thesis, see the Journal History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 25 Dec. 1869 (LDS Church Archives). For further Hyde innovations, see Loretta L. Hefner, “From Apostle to Apostate: The Personal Struggle of Amasa Mason Lyman,” Dialogue 16 (Spring 1983): 91.
11. This important March 1847 quotation, not previously published, was called to my attention by Ronald Esplin. It is found in minutes 26 Mar. 1847, Brigham Young Papers, LDS Church Archives. Its clear implication that there was no priesthood discrimination based on race at the time would seem to limit quite narrowly the time interval in which this practice was first enunciated. For a fuller treatment of McCary, see Bringhurst, Saints, Slaves, and Blacks, pp. 84-86, or Bringhurst, “Elijah Abel and the Changing Status of Blacks Within Mormonism,” Dialogue 12 (Summer 1979): 26-28.
13. William Appleby, Journal, 19 May 1847, LDS Church Archives. The book of Abraham abstract is under date of 5 May 1841. Bringhurst’s concerns are noted in Saints, Slaves, and Blacks, p. 104 note 41.
14. See note 5. Appleby, about whom little has been written, merits further study. His particular concern with miscegenation is reflected in several journal entries. He later alluded rather harshly to blacks in an article he published on the book of Abraham. While Elijah Abel had been allowed in the Kirtland temple for the ordinance of washing and anointing in 1836, blacks who applied for temple ordinances after arrival in Utah were uniformly refused. On the evolution of Mormon thinking on these ordinances, see David John Buerger. “‘The Fulness of the Priesthood’: The Second Annointing in Latter-day Saint Theology and Practice,” Dialogue 16 (Spring 1983): 10-44.
15. Journal History, 13 Feb. 1849. The text of the earlier Pratt statement leaves the possibility that his remarks were historically descriptive, rather than currently proscriptive. While later events perhaps make this unlikely, it is important to recall that Joseph Smith could have made a comparable statement about Ham and servitude while yet opposing slavery. This in fact was the view of many abolitionists.
16. The first quotation, a remarkable though previously unpublished extract from a “Speach by Gov. Young in Counsel on a Bill relating to Affrican Slavery. Jan. 23d 1852″ (LDS Church Archives) makes absolutely explicit the previously apparent source of Brigham’s views on black slavery with obvious implications for his closely related views on priesthood. The second quotation is from Young’s “Governor’s Message, to the Legislative Assembly of Utah Territory, January 5, 1852″ (LDS Church Archives). In this he follows Joseph Smith’s 1836 antiabolitionist remarks: “The curse is not yet taken off the sons of Canaan, neither will be until it is affected by as great power as caused it to come.” (Messenger and Advocate 2:290).
17. “An Act in relation to Service,” approved 4 Feb. 1852. Brigham, of course, felt that neither the Civil War nor the Emancipation Proclamation would succeed in annulling God’s decree. E.g., (6 Oct. 1863) Journal of Discourses 10:250.
18. Bush, “Mormonism’s Negro Doctrine,” pp. 25-26. It was in this context that Brigham replied to Lorenzo Snow in 1849; it was also the Cain ancestry which he asserted as the correct explanation in rebutting Hyde’s “neutrality” thesis.
18. Bush, “Mormonism’s Negro Doctrine,” pp. 25-26. It was in this context that Brigham replied to Lorenzo Snow in 1849; it was also the Cain ancestry which he asserted as the correct explanation in rebutting Hyde’s “neutrality” thesis.
22. In addition to the arrival of a growing number of blacks in Utah territory, Bringhurst, in Saints, Slaves, and Blacks, pp. 64-73, makes a case that the national political environment influenced the timing of Young’s publication of Mormon views on slavery. Whatever the explanation, Young over a period of only a few months in 1852 presided over the initial publication of the Mormon position on polygamy, Adam-God, the legalization of slavery, and blacks and the priesthood. Young later commented that he once told Joseph Smith that “he had given us revelation enough to last us 20 years when that time is out I can give as good revelation as their is in the Doctrine & Covenants.” As quoted in Gary James Bergera, “The Orson Pratt-Brigham Young Controversies: Conflict Within the Quorums, 1853 to 1868,” Dialogue 13 (Summer 1980): 19.
23. Dennis Lythgoe, in reviewing Saints, Slaves, and Blacks for The Journal of American History, 69 (Sept. 1982): 421-22, has denied that a Missouri thesis ever existed, though one wonders how he can do so in the face of its clear articulation in, for example, Stephen G. Taggart’s widely read Mormonism’s Negro Policy: Social and Historical Origins (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1970).
24. Bush, “Mormonism’s Negro Doctrine,” pp. 39-49 and Armand L. Mauss, “The Fading of the Pharaohs’ Curse: The Decline and Fall of the Priesthood Ban Against Blacks in the Mormon Church,” Dialogue 14 (Fall 1981): 10-45. A major problem for the Missouri thesis has been that the verses of the book of Moses so intertwined with early Mormon thinking on blacks well precede any problems in Missouri.
27. If major fault is to be found with Bringhurst’s very thorough treatment, it is with the way he couches his extraordinary wealth of descriptive material. My reading of the earliest relevant Mormon comments is that they were often spontaneous responses to the circumstances in which the Saints found themselves, delivered without much thought, and dealing with subjects at best incidental to any notion of Mormon “doctrine.” Saints, Slaves, and Blacks perhaps inadvertantly conveys the impression that most pre-Utah Mormon commentary relating to blacks was deliberate, if not premeditated, and that it somehow reflected an underlying, conscious effort to formulate a policy on race. This is particularly evident in the use of such terms as “church spokesmen,” or “Mormon racism,” or “Mormonism’s initial attitude,” or even “Mormon racist theories” at a time when there was often no such thing as a “Mormon” spokesman or theory relating to blacks—or almost any other subject. This in turn obscures an already complex problem by failing to distinguish systematically between the views expressed in letters to the editor from “average” members, on the one hand, and the views of acknowledged Church leaders on the other. Nor is any effort made to sort out the diverse (but often consistent over time) views of individual prominent Mormons. Perhaps most important, no distinction is made between views self-labelled as “personal” and those put forth with some semblance of institutional authority. Overall this is much less a problem in the materials relating to the early Utah experience and the development of slavery among the Mormons, a circumstance Bringhurst has shown to be at once more complex and self-aware than previously realized. In this instance Bringhurst’s data support much more convincingly a case that the words and actions of church leaders were deliberate and well thought out.
34. On this general issue see Anthony A. Hutchison, “A Redaction Critical Approach to LDS Creation Narratives,” paper delivered at the Mormon History Association annual meeting, Omaha, Nebraska, 6 May 1983.
44. Similar flexibility has been noted on the part of Joseph Smith in other instances (e.g., polygamy) in which he eventually led the church markedly away from the theology introduced through the Book of Mormon or his other early revelations.
45. Not until 1879 does one find this distinction clearly made even on the issue of slavery. At that time Franklin D. Richards observed, in part, “[Noah] said they should be servants of servants among their brethren, making their servitude the fulfilment of prophecy, whether according to the will of God or not.” Journal of Discourses 20:312.
47. Bush, “Mormonism’s Negro Doctrine,” pp. 20-21, 54 note 65, 28-29. While Bringhurst has convincingly made the point that at no time were the early Mormon leaders very progressive on race by modern standards, he has not, as suggested in Saints, Slaves, and Blacks, produced data to show a net change in attitude immediately after 1839. The clearest “deterioration” in the status of blacks is evident in the 1845-47 period.
49. The concurrent action on slavery, however, suggests that in this instance, at least, a literalist allegiance to Joseph’s scripture predominated over a strict adherence to his point of view. As noted, during his lifetime Joseph seems to have reversed this precedence.
51. Specific concerns during these years related to South Africa, Fiji, Tonga, Hawaii, West Irian, the Philippines, Brazil, and Cuba. See, for example, Mauss, “The Fading of the Pharaohs’ Curse,” pp. 12-14; Bringhurst, “Mormonism in Black Africa: Changing Attitudes and Practices, 1830-1981,” Sunstone 6 (May-June 1981): 15-21; Norman Douglas, “The Sons of Lehi and the Seed of Cain: Racial Myths in the Mormon Scriptures and Their Relevance to the Pacific Islands,” Journal of Religious History 8 (June 1974): 90-104; and Mark L. Grover, “The Lineage of Cain in the Land of Racial Democracy: The Mormon Priesthood and the Brazilian of African Descent,” paper given during the Mormon History Association annual meeting, Omaha, Nebraska, 7 May 1983.
52. A related problem which loomed increasingly larger in the mid-twentieth century was that of identifying exactly which groups were to be denied the priesthood, i.e., who comprised the descendants of Cain. Given traditional assumptions, this had been relatively easy in nineteenth-century America but proved difficult if not impossible in the international, twentieth-century church. The history of this problem is discussed at some length in my “Response to Mark Grover’s Essay on ‘The Lineage of Cain in the Land of Racial Democracy,’” Mormon History Association annual meeting, Omaha, Nebraska, 7 May 1983.
53. Extensive discussions in these earlier years led to a narrowing of the formal orthodoxy on the subject of the priesthood ban through First Presidency statements (1949, 1969) and to some change in which races qualified for the ban; but in the final analysis, the core practice was always publicly reaffirmed.
55. Mauss, “The Fading of the Pharaoh’s Curse,” offers the most complete discussion of these events to date. Much remains to be learned about leadership thinking on this subject, during the ’70s especially.
56. See Bruce R. McConkie, “The New Revelation on Priesthood,” in Priesthood (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1981), pp. 126-37, esp. p. 128. The partial revisions in his Mormon Doctrine, 2nd ed. (Bookcraft: Salt Lake City, 1966) are to be found in the 27th printing.