Note: The following was originally printed in the November/December 2020 edition of Mormonism Researched. To request a free subscription, please visit here.
In his book The Church and the Negro, LDS author Dr. John Lewis Lund cited a letter written by ninth LDS President David O. McKay. Dated November 3, 1947, McKay gave a lengthy response to a “brother” who had written to him, explaining that he and his “fellow students, have been perturbed about the question of why the Negroid race cannot hold the priesthood.”
Offering his thoughts on the matter, McKay made this observation: “I know of no scriptural basis for denying the Priesthood to Negroes other than one verse in the Book of Abraham (1:26); however, I believe, as you suggest, that the real reason dates back to our pre-existent life” (The Church and the Negro, 91). Such a statement carries significant importance because McKay referred directly to LDS scripture, i.e., the Pearl of Great Price, where the Book of Abraham is found. By itself, verse 26 might sound incredibly vague and confusing. It reads:
“Pharaoh, being a righteous man, established his kingdom and judged his people wisely and justly all his days, seeking earnestly to imitate that order established by the fathers in the first generations, in the days of the first patriarchal reign, even in the reign of Adam, and also of Noah, his father, who blessed him with the blessings of the earth, and with the blessings of wisdom, but cursed him as pertaining to the Priesthood.”
In his 1948 edition of the Pearl of Great Price Commentary, LDS Seventy Milton R. Hunter explained why David O. McKay (and most Mormons prior to 1978 when the ban was lifted) felt that Abraham 1:26 was a key verse when it comes to denying the priesthood to members of African heritage. In doing so, he put verse 26 into context by explaining some of the surrounding verses in Abraham 1. Under the sub heading “Denied the Priesthood,” he wrote:
“Since the Lord appeared unto Cain and conversed with him many times before Cain killed Abel, Cain must have held the Priesthood. God said unto Cain, ‘For from this time forth thou shalt be the father of his [Satan’s] lies; thou shalt be called Perdition,’ and the Lord cursed Cain with severe cursings. On of the those cursings was a mark placed upon Cain, which mark would be carried by his posterity throughout all generations. According to the teachings of the Pearl of Great Price, this mark was a black skin.”
Hunter went on to write:
“But the greatest curse of all that came upon Cain and his descendants was that they were “cursed as pertaining to the Priesthood,” that is, the entire lineage “could not have the right of Priesthood” (verses 26-27). From the foregoing scripture we learn that Ham, the son of Noah, preserved the curses of Cain in the land. Since Ham was a son of Noah, it is quite definite that he did not have a black skin and was not a descendant of Cain. But the scripture seems to indicate that the wife of Ham was a descendant of Cain and through her the curses were preserved (verses 21-25). Her name was Egyptus, “which signifies that which is forbidden.” Also, her daughter was known by the name of Egyptus, and Pharaoh was her grandson. He and his descendants could not hold the Priesthood (verses 21, 25-27).”
Hunter insisted that Joseph Smith “identified the negroes as the descendants of Cain.” On page 141 of his commentary, Hunter noted:
“In Nauvoo in 1842, a group of the brethren were discussing the question as to whether the negroes or the Indians had received the greater ill-treatment from the whites. The prophet said: ‘The Indians have greater cause to complain of the treatment of the whites, than the negroes, or sons of Cain.’ Therefore it is due to the teachings of the Pearl of Great Price and the Prophet Joseph Smith and the other early leaders of the Church that the negro today is barred from the Priesthood.”
Smith’s comment can be found in the History of the Church 4:501. Hunter’s understanding was rather traditional prior to 1978 when the LDS Church reversed its position and allowed “all worthy male” members the opportunity to receive the unique priesthood of Mormonism. Since then, the church has taken the position that it can’t be known why black members were barred from the priesthood.
When The Pearl of Great Price Student Manual: Religion 327 was published in 2000, a very different explanation was given for Abraham 1:26.
“At times past, the power and authority to act in the name of the Lord was bestowed upon only a few worthy males and withheld from all others. In the days of Moses’ leadership of the children of Israel, for example, only the tribe of Levi had the privilege to hold the priesthood (see numbers 8:5-5-26). Our day is the ‘long-promised day. . . when every faithful, worthy man in the church may receive the holy priesthood.’”
This explanation is fraught with problems. One, if the LDS priesthood is a restored version of the Old Testament priesthood, why are non Levites allowed to participate? Also, if the mark (black skin) was given to distinguish who should not be allowed to have the priesthood, and that prohibition is no longer valid, why are some still born with this apparently unnecessary mark of black skin?
Furthermore, the “long-promised day” was understood to mean after the resurrection. Second LDS President Brigham Young said “That curse will remain upon them, and they never can hold the Priesthood or share in it until all the other descendants of Adam have received the promises and enjoyed the blessings of the Priesthood and the keys thereof” (Journal of Discourses 7:290-291). That day has not yet come.
If Young is to be believed, Hunter’s traditional explanation of Abraham 1:26 is still valid. If nothing else, lifting the ban demonstrated that doctrine found in written LDS scripture and confirmed by “modern revelation ”can indeed be changed in Mormonism, contrary to what the LDS Church leaders tell their people.
For more on this topic, see Unexplaining the Mormon Priesthood Ban on Blacks