As a Black American, I wonder how Black people are treated by Mormons. Is being Black still believed to be the mark of Cain? How did that belief come about? Isn’t it just as possible that the mark of Cain could have been to be made white?
SS, there is no question that the LDS Church has a racist past. Just like the United States of America. And there is no question in my mind that racism does not fade easily—whether from Mormonism, or from American culture at large. But there are many African-American Mormons and their allies who work hard to address it. To get a sense of their lives and their experience, check out this site or this article or this movie.
It’s impossible to generalize how Black people are treated by Mormons, but a little data helps to fill in the story. Although the Church doesn’t keep track of members’ racial identities, folks in the know have estimated that there are between 500,000 and 1,000,000 LDS Church members of African descent worldwide.
In the earliest decades of the LDS Church, African-American members like Elijah Abel and Walker Lewis were ordained to the priesthood. Something shifted, though, around the time of the death of Church founder Joseph Smith in the late 1840s. In 1849, Brigham Young made a statement that Blacks were not entitled to hold the priesthood due to the “Curse of Cain.” And after the Mormons—including Mormons of African descent—crossed the plains to Utah, in 1852, Brigham Young gave a speech to the Utah Territorial Legislature indicating that African-Americans could not hold the priesthood. Still, Mormon history documents cases where individual African-Americans—descendents of Elijah Abel—were ordained through the 1930s.
During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as Church leaders bought into the idea that people of African descent should no longer be ordained, they generated “reasons” for the priesthood ban. They drew largely from American Christian folk theology that often connected racial difference to the curses placed upon Cain or Noah’s son Ham in the Old Testament. These stories took hold among LDS people, especially in their isolation in Mormon settlements in the intermountain West.
But the effort to explain racial differences through Biblical narratives did not originate with the Mormon Church. It dates back to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The idea that modern African and African-American peoples were the descendents of Cain, or Ham, or Canaan was widespread in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century America and frequently used by whites to excuse race slavery. In this regard, Mormons followed a larger American example. But some Church leaders also generated a parallel narrative (with no foundation in scripture) that attributed the priesthood ban to a lack of valiance in the pre-earthly life by the souls of those who came to earth as people of African descent.
The worldwide growth of the Church from the 1950s onward spurred new reasons for Church members and leaders to question the validity of the priesthood ban and to interrogate its rationale. The ban rested heavily on the hearts of many Mormons, black and white, and many members and some leaders prayed for the Church to find greater light on this issue. The issue became especially acute with the rapid growth of the Church in Brazil. In 1978, President Spencer W. Kimball announced that in answer to prayer he had come to understand that the priesthood should be made available to all worthy male members of the Church regardless of race or ancestry. This announcement has been canonized as scripture.
Historians of LDS thought agree that in the late 1960s, Church leaders backed away from the legends of Cain and Ham put forward by Brigham Young and those who followed him. My research on your query suggests that the last time a General Authority (high-ranking Church leader) taught over the pulpit at General Conference that the Curse of Cain was connected to the priesthood ban was Ezra Taft Benson in 1967. (Although it should be noted that Bruce R. McConkie–an outlier on this issue–continued to incorporate obsolete doctrines on race into his writing beyond the late 1960s.) The teaching has disappeared from contemporary Church manuals. You may, however, still hear it by word of mouth, as I did when I was a kid. My professors at Brigham Young University in the late 1980s taught me to dismiss it as a distortion.
To my knowledge, no Church leader has ever stood at the pulpit and formally renounced the idea that Cain or Ham are the source of racial Blackness and the priesthood ban. Perceptive observers note that the LDS Church leadership prefers to let old doctrines fade away quietly rather than address them directly. On race issues especially, I think this leads to missed opportunities. While younger generations of Mormons may rarely think about and may not even know about the Church’s history with African-Americans, older Mormons continue to quietly harbor outmoded ideas, and many non-Mormons, especially African-Americans, are aware of the Church’s past teachings but without a formal renunciation do not know whether such doctrines continue. In 2006, Church President Gordon B. Hinckley did state over the pulpit at General Conference that racism is unequivocally wrong and totally unacceptable among Church members. His comments were welcomed by African-American Mormons and their allies.
Still, I’m looking forward to the day when more Mormons will say out loud: We were wrong. We were wrong about Cain. Wrong about Ham. And wrong to deny the priesthood to people of African descent. For in this regard, the curse has been ours to bear.
And just because you asked, the Old Testament does give one instance where someone was cursed for her transgressions with a skin of whiteness: Miriam, in Numbers 12:10.
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