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Questions from the Grass Roots, 1948 — Curse of Cain Edition

By: Ardis E. Parshall - August 04, 2010

As mentioned in Monday’s post, the Church News published a column in 1948 inviting members to send in their questions about anything to do with the Church, its history, doctrine, and practices. By November, 1948, the column was headed each week by a notice that the Church News had such a backlog of queries to answer that no more should be sent. Despite that backlog and the popularity of the feature, the column was not continued into the new year.

During the few months that queries were accepted and answered, multiple questions were asked about Church teachings concerning blacks, or about issues that may not mention blacks explicitly but do relate to past teachings concerning race. This surprises me, in a way, because most Mormons of that generation, living in the Mormon Corridor of the west, would have had limited-to-no contact with African Americans; the questions could hardly have been prompted by interest in a person or issue that was of immediate concern to many members. To me, it seems like the endless curiosity and discussion about the ultimate fate of the sons of perdition: of little practical value, and based on precious little scriptural information. Yet obviously the interest was genuine.

I look forward to a day when this disclaimer is unnecessary because it is known and understood by everyone, inside and out of the Church: The answers given here — the doctrinal explanations, the scriptural interpretations — are no longer taught by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Some, including the supposed neutrality of spirits in the War in Heaven, have been specifically repudiated, time and time again; they are mildly refuted here in 1948, yet the mere fact that someone asked the question indicates that it was a current underground belief. Other faulty answers have been replaced by the teaching that God is no respecter of persons, that all worthy men may hold the priesthood irrespective of race, that the whole “curse of Cain” idea was a false notion imported into Mormonism from the wider Christian culture from which its members came, and that isolated verses from the Book of Moses or the Book of Abraham used in the past to justify the so-called “curse of Cain” and the priesthood restriction are misreadings of scripture, imposing a twisted set of assumptions that are not present in the actual text of the scripture.

Regular readers will understand that I post these questions and answers not to perpetuate false teachings nor to sneer at the people who once held these wrong ideas. Rather, I post them to give a clearer picture of what was actually once taught and believed and to help us understand how the pervasiveness of such teachings and the interest focused on them once upon a time contribute to the unfortunate and nagging persistence of such beliefs among older or less-informed members of the Church.

Q. Was the wife of Joseph of Egypt, Negro? – H.B., Heber City.

A. No. Otherwise we would all be cursed according to the priesthood because the descendants of Cain were not allowed to hold the priesthood. If Joseph’s wife had been a Negress, her sons would have had the blood of Cain in their veins and would have been cursed according to the priesthood as would we all for most of us in the Church are descendants of Ephraim. Joseph’s wife was of the same race that he was. See “Joseph and The Land of Egypt” by Prof. A.H. Sayce, pg. 63.

Q. Does the Church teach that in the war in heaven there were three groups, one which followed Christ, one which followed Satan, and the other neutral?

A. We suggest that you read Chapter 5 of the book called “The Way to Perfection” by Elder Joseph Fielding Smith. This chapter entitled “The Way of Life” deals with the pre-existence and refers to the war in heaven. There is no scripture to indicate that one third of the host of heaven was neutral.

Q. The Church has information as to the origin of the black race and the red race or Lamanites. Does it have similar information about the yellow race? – C.H.M., Salt Lake City.

A. The origin of the black and Indian races are made known in scripture as you know. The scripture is silent with regard to the origin of the yellow skin.

Q. How many generations of intermarriage with whites must pass before a descendant of Cain will be permitted to hold the priesthood? – C.R.A., Salt Lake.

A. No person known to have any of the blood of Cain in his veins is ordained to the priesthood.

Q. Why was the mark placed upon Cain? – W.W.J., Salt Lake.

A. The fifth chapter of Moses, in the Pearl of Great Price, gives you the official explanation of the reason for the mark being placed upon Cain. We suggest you read it there.

Q. When and to whom was information received in this dispensation as to the sons of Cain and the Priesthood? – A.R.W., Creston, Mont.

A. The Book of Moses in the Pearl of Great Price was revealed to the Prophet Joseph Smith in 1830. That book includes the visions and the writings of Moses as they were made known to the Prophet. If you will read chapter five of the Book of Moses you will see the story of Cain’s downfall and the manner in which he was cursed pertaining to the Priesthood. Then if you examine Moses seventh chapter, twenty-second verse, you will see there the record of the fact that the seed of Cain were black.



25 Comments »

  1. Wow! How much our understanding has changed. I was still hoping that we’d get a definitive answer about Cain/Bigfoot.

    Comment by Steve C. — August 4, 2010 @ 9:02 am

  2. You’ll have to turn to Matt Bowman for that, Steve. There’s a book coming out next year at USU, co-edited by Michael Van Wagenen and Paul Reeve, about Mormon folklore with an emphasis on the paranormal. The title is, I think, something like Between Pulpit and Pew, but I may not have that entirely right. I think Matt’s MHA paper on Cain and Bigfoot is included.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 4, 2010 @ 9:19 am

  3. I’ve seen Joseph Fielding Smith try and repudiate the idea of heavenly neutrality several times, even when other, more senior church leaders were advocating it. Do you happen to know if JFSII was involved in this and whether this is what evolved into “Answers to Gospel Questions” in the Improvement Era?

    Comment by J. Stapley — August 4, 2010 @ 9:41 am

  4. J., I have found no indication of who is authoring the answers. The questions were to be sent to the Church News editor, who at the time was Mark E. Peterson, but whether he answered or approved them personally I do not know. JFSII’s writings are cited in answer to quite a few queries, but then so are the books of other general authorities. JFSII’s column in the Era, at first called “Your Questions,” began in May 1953; these columns in the Church News ended abruptly — no editorial comment as to their cessation; they simply stopped — at the end of 1948.

    In the ’40s when his sons were in the military and later on missions, JFSII’s letters to them read like entries in an “Answers to Gospel Questions” column — really, that aspect of answering questions (whether or not they had been asked by the boys) overwhelms any personal content in the letters. JFSII obviously enjoyed that kind of communication. Whether the Church News columns gave him the idea for his Era columns directly, or whether he just grew into it as a result of his natural proclivities, I can’t guess.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 4, 2010 @ 9:54 am

  5. Ardis, thanks for the tip on the book. I’ll be looking for it.

    Comment by Steve C. — August 4, 2010 @ 10:22 am

  6. Argh! What an intriguing post title and no time to read. Will look forward to digesting this a bit later. In the mean time, have fun, everyone!

    Comment by David Y. — August 4, 2010 @ 10:42 am

  7. Ardis, regarding the average Utah Mormon’s interaction with blacks during the 40′s and 50′s, you get a pretty definitive change in demographics as you move North into Ogden, Weber County, and northern Davis County (Clearfield). Ogden was the railroad hub for Utah, and also was home to several large defense department operations that continued after WW II, such as Hill AFB, Defense Depot Ogden, and the Clearfield Naval Supply Depot. As a result, this area of Weber and Davis counties was more ethnically diverse than Salt Lake City, or especially Provo. We also saw many of the Topaz internment camp residents relocate to Ogden after the war as well, bringing a substantial Japanese presence. I forget the exact figures, but even in the 1960′s 80% of Utah’s residents of African-American descent lived in the Ogden Metro area. Growing up in Ogden, I had Hispanic, Native American, Black, and Japanese schoolmates from elementary school on. Ogden was always culturally less like a typical Utah city than Salt Lake or Provo.

    However, that didn’t stop speculation on any of the above topics, and I remember hearing them all during those years. And during the 1960′s and early 70′s, I saw firsthand more pronounced racial tensions being played out than was typical for the rest of Utah. The racial profiling and harassment that surrounded the investigation of the Hi Fi Shop murders was particularly ugly.

    Comment by kevinf — August 4, 2010 @ 11:17 am

  8. Thanks, Ardis. Very interesting stuff.

    Comment by Jared T. — August 4, 2010 @ 11:39 am

  9. Thanks, kevin, that’s helpful. The places from where this handful of questions was submitted aren’t from that part of the state, but that of course doesn’t mean that those outside of Ogden were unaware of issues there.

    I’m expecting to write a post about an incident dating to 1948 — one outside the U.S. but involving a young Mormon woman — that is filled with the kind of racial profiling you note in connection with the Hi Fi Shop murders. I’m waiting for a book ordered from Amazon to come for that post, after which (my obligatory plug for the Church History Library follows) I will donate the book to the library because they have nothing about the event on their shelves.

    And, I should note, I appreciate the tone of all the comments made so far. I expect someone (or more) to post unpleasant and untrue comments eventually, but so far you all are your usual wonderful selves.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 4, 2010 @ 11:57 am

  10. I recall reading what seemed like a rather lengthy article in one of the Church magazines when I was in my youth (this must have have been the later 1960s, since I can’t find it in the Ensign where I thought it was) which contained a number of statements from the various prophets that that blacks would at some future time recieve the Priesthoood. Although it was commonly believed that that time would not be until the Millennium, I don’t think that was necessarily what was said. But I don’t have easy access to the archives of older church magazines and I don’t trust my memory.
    The 1978 revelation (OD 2) specifically mentions such teachings and that the First Presidency and the Twelve were aware of them, but I have seen far more abuse of Mormons and Mormonism in general and Brigham Young in particular for holding, teaching, and defending racist false doctrine than in what they said about the future.

    Comment by Confutus — August 4, 2010 @ 5:04 pm

  11. I’m 23, and in my High School seminary classes were several students who believed that Cain=Bigfoot. The teacher rolled his eyes but did not succeed in changing anyone’s mind. Another teacher, a full-time CES instructor, formally taught us (and his adopted black daughter) that blacks are descended from Cain and that their skin was cursed. He was clear that he didn’t consider blacks to still be spiritually cursed, but said they were until 1978. While the church may not teach these things, they also do not provide other explanations, and the beliefs do continue.

    Comment by Ariel — August 4, 2010 @ 6:31 pm

  12. #10, during the early and mid-twentieth century a purported statement by Wilford Woodruff stating that people of African decent would one day receive the priesthood was circulated by the highest leaders in the Church.

    Comment by J. Stapley — August 4, 2010 @ 6:35 pm

  13. Well, Ariel, I did refer to the “persistence of such beliefs among older or less-informed members of the Church,” didn’t I?

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 4, 2010 @ 8:01 pm

  14. Q. How many generations of intermarriage with whites must pass before a descendant of Cain will be permitted to hold the priesthood? – C.R.A., Salt Lake.

    A. No person known to have any of the blood of Cain in his veins is ordained to the priesthood.

    This sounds very much like a 1948 reinforcement of BY’s 1852 “one drop” statement. I have to say that I cringed when I read it. The U.S. legal system provides wonderful context for this idea over time. Mormons didn’t make up the “one drop” rule but borrowed it from broader society and unfortunately applied it to the Priesthood. With current DNA understanding it makes me wonder how many pre 1978 LDS received the priesthood with much more than “one drop” without anyone ever knowing. Truly enforcing a “one drop” rule was impossible.

    Comment by Paul Reeve — August 4, 2010 @ 9:20 pm

  15. I recall reading what seemed like a rather lengthy article in one of the Church magazines when I was in my youth (this must have have been the later 1960s, since I can’t find it in the Ensign where I thought it was) which contained a number of statements from the various prophets that that blacks would at some future time recieve the Priesthoood.

    It was published in the late 70s, but “Prophets Tell of Promise to All Races,” Church News, Jun. 17, 1978, 4, comes to mind here.

    Comment by Justin — August 4, 2010 @ 9:55 pm

  16. I thought it was earlier than that, but as I said, I don’t trust my memory.

    Comment by Confutus — August 4, 2010 @ 10:21 pm

  17. Thanks for the post, Ardis. Your efforts “to give a clearer picture of what was actually once taught and believed and to help us understand how the pervasiveness of such teachings and the interest focused on them once upon a time contribute to the unfortunate and nagging persistence of such beliefs among older or less-informed members of the Church” are appreciated.

    Comment by Christopher — August 5, 2010 @ 7:48 am

  18. “Prophets Tell of Promise to All Races”, the article cited by Justin in #15, has been posted for readers’ convenience.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 5, 2010 @ 9:45 am

  19. Paul: Your comments on the “one drop” notion and how that seeped into LDS doctrine is interesting. I’ve often wondered how many ideas like that have made their way into LDS “doctrine.” Growing up I had always heard that the curse of Cain was a black skin. When I was in graduate school (at a southern state university) in the 1990s one of my professors (non-LDS) commented in class that it was a common belief among 18th and early 19th century Protestants that the curse of Cain was a black skin. I would speculate that many of the early brethren had heard that in their former churches and later as a General Authority they preached it as it made sense to them at the time.

    Comment by Steve C. — August 5, 2010 @ 9:50 am

  20. Thanks for publishing that article, Ardis. I don’t believe that I have ever read it.

    Comment by J. Stapley — August 5, 2010 @ 10:20 am

  21. Steve C.: Yes, correct. The curse notion long pre-dates Mormonism, but Mormonism put its own twist on it. There has been some good scholarship of late on the notion of biblical curses: Stephen R. Haynes, Noah’s Curse: The Biblical Justification of American Slavery; Colin Kidd, The Forging of Races: Race and Scripture in the Protestant Atlantic World, 1600-2000; and David M. Goldenberg, The Curse of Ham: Race and Slavery in Early Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

    Comment by Paul Reeve — August 5, 2010 @ 11:24 am

  22. More thanks for the article, Ardis.

    Comment by Confutus — August 5, 2010 @ 11:41 am

  23. Q. When and to whom was information received in this dispensation as to the sons of Cain and the Priesthood? – A.R.W., Creston, Mont.

    A. The Book of Moses in the Pearl of Great Price was revealed to the Prophet Joseph Smith in 1830. That book includes the visions and the writings of Moses as they were made known to the Prophet. If you will read chapter five of the Book of Moses you will see the story of Cain’s downfall and the manner in which he was cursed pertaining to the Priesthood. Then if you examine Moses seventh chapter, twenty-second verse, you will see there the record of the fact that the seed of Cain were black.

    Is anyone else bothered by this answer? I’m really sorry for how Mr. 1948-anon-answer-guru used the book of Moses to bolster his (has to be a “his” doesn’t it?) position. I like this question a lot, but I do not care for the answer because it feels like it is not historically honest. Yes, JS received those scriptures in 1830, but did he ever interpret them the way in which the writer of the answer interprets them? Not of which I’m aware. It bothers me as being disingenuous because in fact there is no revelation about a curse and priesthood, only later interpretation of scripture. The only revelation on the matter of which I’m aware came in 1978. Before that it seems like the ideas of men mingled with scripture held sway. In offering this answer, the answer guru implicates Joseph Smith in the ban, again without supporting evidence.

    Comment by Paul Reeve — August 5, 2010 @ 1:57 pm

  24. Paul, I’m glad you brought that up. With our post-1978 understanding it’s so easy to see how Mr. 1948-anon-answer-guru and his fellow Saints were reading things into those verses that are not there — yet they were seemingly unaware of the leaps they were making to connect unconnectable dots. They “knew” how things were and didn’t seem bothered that the scriptures didn’t exactly say that; they seemed content to believe that if even part of their understanding was verified by the scriptures, then the unverified parts must be true, too.

    Not that I want to condemn that generation too harshly — they were speaking without the “greater light and knowledge,” as BRMcConkie put it, that came in June 1978. (Makes me wonder what I may be misreading on other subjects in the same way.)

    There’s no excuse for anybody today to cling to those unsupported beliefs, though.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 5, 2010 @ 2:44 pm

  25. RE: Comment 23.
    That bothered me as well for the same sort of reasons. I think we’ve already read here on Keepa that JS’s did not interpret the scriptures in that way as we know he ordained persons of African descent to the priesthood after 1830.

    Comment by Steve C. — August 6, 2010 @ 9:41 am

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