Reconsidering the Curse of Cain

Eugene England once shared an experience he had with the prominent Latter-day Saint Church leader, scriptorian, and doctrinaire Joseph Fielding Smith.  President Smith had written extensively on the subject of the priesthood and temple ban against individuals of black African ancestry, offering rationales for the ban that have since been disavowed by the Church.  During that time, England sought out the opportunity to meet with President Smith and recorded that:

I told President Smith about my experiences with the issue of blacks and the priesthood and asked him whether I must believe in the pre-existence doctrine to have good standing in the Church. His answer was, “Yes, because that is the teaching of the Scriptures.” I asked President Smith if he would show me the teaching in the Scriptures (with some trepidation, because I was convinced that if anyone in the world could show me he could). He read over with me the modern scriptural sources and then, after some reflection, said something to me that fully revealed the formidable integrity which characterized his whole life: “No, you do not have to believe that Negroes are denied the priesthood because of the pre-existence. I have always assumed that because it was what I was taught, and it made sense, but you don’t have to to be in good standing because it is not definitely stated in the scriptures. And I have received no revelation on the matter.”[1]

The story is a significant example for us to consider.  President Smith fully believed that the scriptures taught something.  When asked to look closely, however, he discovered that the scriptures did not, in fact, teach the idea he thought they did.  When confronted with that realization, rather than doubling down on the teaching in question, he admitted that he had been wrong in stating that it “is the teaching of the Scriptures.”

Now, I mentioned a couple weeks ago in a discussion thread that I would try to explain some of my perspectives on the rationales for the priesthood and temple ban, especially when it comes to ideas that have been viewed as being supported by the scriptures.  This is the first, likely of two posts, laying out my thoughts on some of these issues (the second post is now available here).  My hope today is to ask fellow Church members to consider taking a similar journey as Joseph Fielding Smith did with another of the teachings that upheld the priesthood and temple ban that is often assumed to be the teaching of the Scriptures—the curse of Cain as the origin of the ban.

I find it important to take this journey because it both helps us see more clearly what is and what is not taught in the Scriptures and because our current Church leaders have indicated that we should probably reconsider our beliefs about why the priesthood and temple ban was put in place.  Beginning in the late 1980s, Elder Dallin H. Oaks began to proclaim that while “some people put reasons to” the priesthood and temple ban, those reasons “turned out to be spectacularly wrong.”[2]  Elder Jeffrey R. Holland weighed in on the subject in 2006, stating that: “It probably would have been advantageous to say nothing, to say we just don’t know. … But some explanations were given and had been given for a lot of years. … At the very least, there should be no effort to perpetuate those efforts to explain why that doctrine existed. … We simply do not know why that practice, that policy, that doctrine was in place.”[3] In 2013, the Gospel Topics essay on Race and the Priesthood was published with the approval of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve and declared that: “Today, the Church disavows the theories advanced in the past that black skin is a sign of divine disfavor or curse, or that it reflects unrighteous actions in a premortal life; that mixed-race marriages are a sin; or that blacks or people of any other race or ethnicity are inferior in any way to anyone else. Church leaders today unequivocally condemn all racism, past and present, in any form.”[4]  These three witnesses together indicate to me that it is better to accept that we have no explanation from God for the priesthood and temple ban than it is to continue to believe in the theories and explanations advanced in the past, whether you believe that the ban was put in place by God or not.

While most Church members that I’ve spoken to seem willing to discard the idea that the ban was the result of premortal failures, there seems to be less willingness to distance themselves from the idea that the priesthood was withheld because of the choices of supposed ancestors of black Africans—specifically Cain and Ham.  Partly, this is because there has been a narrative used to support the ban since the time of President Brigham Young that Cain was cursed as pertaining to the priesthood and marked with dark skin, that his descendants bore both the curse and the mark, and that the descendants of Ham were a continuation of Cain’s lineage and that those descendants are black Africans.  Three separate stories in the scriptures are blended in this narrative—Cain’s story in Genesis 4, Ham and Canaan’s story in Genesis 9, and Pharaoh’s story in the Book of Abraham 1—giving the narrative the veneer of scriptural authority.  For example, in the current version of the Church’s manual for Institute classes about the Old Testament, there is the statement that: “Although Ham himself had the right to the priesthood, Canaan, his son, did not. Ham had married Egyptus, a descendant of Cain (Abraham 1:21–24), and so his sons were denied the priesthood.”[5]  While this is in a current Church manual, we need to keep in mind the incident earlier this year where a quote with outdated racial commentary was carried over from the current Book of Mormon Institute manual into the Come, Follow Me manual.  Since then, the manual was changed in the digital edition and Elder Gary Stevenson said that: “We’re asking our members to disregard the paragraph in the printed manual,” calling it an “error.”[6]  This incident underscores the fact that old ways of understanding some of the racialized stories in the scriptures are being reconsidered and that many of the race-related statements in Church manuals published prior to 2013 are being considered outdated.  We need to parse the three stories of Cain, Ham/Canaan, and Pharaoh, examining them closely to consider what bearing they each do and do not have on the priesthood ban.  The remainder of this post will focus on the story of Cain, while a subsequent post will focus on the more complicated issue of Ham, Canaan, and Pharaoh.

Cain is important to the priesthood ban because from very early on, Brigham Young began to refer to his story as a rationale for the ban’s existence.  While Joseph Smith spoke about lineage and connections to Cain as part of his justifications for slavery’s existence, President Young took the idea further, applying it to the priesthood as well as to slavery.  Brigham Young’s earliest known recorded statement on the priesthood ban came in 1849, when he said:

The curse remained upon them because Cain cut off the lives [sic] of Abel, to prevent him and his posterity getting ascendency over Cain and his generations, and to get the lead himself, his own offering was not being accepted of God, while Abel’s was. But the Lord cursed Cain’s seed with blackness and prohibited them the priesthood, that Abel and his progeny might yet come forward, and have their dominion, place, and blessings in their proper relationship with Cain and his race in the world to come.[7]

Brigham Young seems to have believed that the ability to have descendants and to pass the priesthood on to those descendants was paramount. He believed Cain was attempting to prevent Abel from being able to do, ensuring that Cain and his line would have greater power and authority. In this understanding of the narrative, Cain’s efforts backfired, and he and his descendants were barred from the priesthood until all of Abel’s descendants received the priesthood.  President Young was consistent in expressing this belief or variations thereon, along with his belief that individuals of black African ancestry were descendants of Cain, throughout his lifetime in association with the ban, and many other Church leaders followed his lead in this regard.[8]

How does Brigham Young’s version of the story of Cain compare with what is found in the scriptures?  The story of Cain is found in Genesis 4 and elaborated on in the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible (as is shown in Moses 5).  The full text of the story, as presented in the Bible is as follows:

In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel for his part brought of the firstlings of his flock, their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell. The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.”

Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let us go out to the field.” And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him. Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” And the Lord said, “What have you done? Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground! And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you till the ground, it will no longer yield to you its strength; you will be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.” Cain said to the Lord, “My punishment is greater than I can bear! Today you have driven me away from the soil, and I shall be hidden from your face; I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and anyone who meets me may kill me.” Then the Lord said to him, “Not so! Whoever kills Cain will suffer a sevenfold vengeance.” And the Lord put a mark on Cain, so that no one who came upon him would kill him. Then Cain went away from the presence of the Lord, and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden.[9]

The story in this chapter is expanded a bit in the Joseph Smith translation, introducing elements of Cain swearing an oath to Satan and a warning from God that if Cain goes forward with his plan “thou shalt be the father of his lies; thou shalt be called Perdition … and it shall be said in time to come—That these abominations were had from Cain,” but otherwise, the essential elements relevant to this discussion are the same as the chapter in the Bible.[10]

There are few absences to note here.  First, there is no mention of priesthood or Cain and all his descendants being cut off from the priesthood.  The curse is specifically focused on Cain no longer being able to grow crops, forcing him to live a nomadic lifestyle.  There is a mark placed on him to preserve his life from retribution against his fratricidal actions, but there is no indication of what this mark might be or that it also applied to his descendants.  These are significant gaps between the Biblical record and justifications given for the priesthood ban.

The story became important later on in Judeo-Christian history as part of the narratives used to dehumanize Africans and justify enslaving them.  It was a long time after the original text was written that a Syriac translation of the Hebrew Bible added a gloss to the text in which the mark was said to be dark skin.[11]  As historian Diarmaid MacCulloch observed:

Other Christians followed a different line in biblical interpretation not found in any Western Bible, but traceable right back to a reading in the Syriac Peshitta version of the story of Cain in Genesis 4.1– 16: according to this Syriac take on the biblical text, black people actually descended from Cain because when God had punished Cain for killing his brother Abel, the ‘mark’ he gave the murderer was to blacken his skin. It was reasonable to suppose that this applied to all Cain’s descendants.[12]

The Christians that MacCulloch spoke of in quote above were those Christians from Portugal and Spain who were involved in enslaving Africans.  This idea that the punishment for Cain’s sin was the origin of the dark skin of African peoples became part of the justifications for race-based enslavement, which was also used in the trans-Atlantic slave trade of the British Empire and the United States of America.  As is noted in the Gospel Topics essay on race and the priesthood:

The justifications for this [priesthood] restriction echoed the widespread ideas about racial inferiority that had been used to argue for the legalization of black “servitude” in the Territory of Utah.  According to one view, which had been promulgated in the United States from at least the 1730s, blacks descended from the same lineage as the biblical Cain, who slew his brother Abel. Those who accepted this view believed that God’s ‘curse’ on Cain was the mark of a dark skin.[13]

Thus, Brigham Young and other early Church members were acquainted with the idea of Blacks being descendants of Cain through their culture’s justifications for enslaving human beings and they seem to have drawn on those justifications in explaining the priesthood and temple ban.

Along with the problem that a priesthood restriction is never mentioned in the scriptures in connection with Cain, there is also the theological issue of why similar restrictions were not put in place for similar actions by other individuals.  As Alma Allred wrote: “If the priesthood was withheld from Africans because their ancestor was a murderer, why were King David’s descendants allowed the priesthood, for he too was a murderer? Why are not the white sons of murderers kept from the priesthood?”[14]  Short of some variation of the bizarre occult explanations that D. Michael Quinn suggests may have influenced early Church members’ beliefs (things along the lines of the idea that Cain was the origin of sorcery and secret combinations as a counterfeit to priesthood knowledge, which he passed on to his descendants, thus disqualifying them from the true priesthood) there aren’t a lot of explanations I’ve seen as to why Cain was punished more severely than other murderers.[15]  Even those explanations don’t make sense to apply to people of black African ancestry and I doubt Latter-day Saints today would consider those ideas to be part of their religious beliefs.

Aside from the issue of priesthood not being mentioned in the accounts of Cain’s story and the problem of inconsistent punishments for the same crime, there is also the problem that there is no documented means by which Cain’s descendants survived the flood, if we take the story of Noah literally.  We don’t know much about the women in Noah’s genealogy or the women that he and his sons married.  All that is stated in the Bible is Noah’s male lineage back to Adam through Seth.  The Book of Abraham adds that in Abraham’s time the Pharaoh was “a descendant from the loins of Ham, and was a partaker of the blood of the Canaanites by birth” and that “from this descent sprang all the Egyptians, and thus the blood of the Canaanites was preserved in the land” (Abraham 1:21-22).  It is also noted that Ham’s daughter was also “the daughter of Egyptus” and that “from Ham, sprang that race which preserved the curse in the land” (Abraham 1:23-24).  It is not clear, however, what the curse referred to is—is it the one placed on Cain, the one placed on Canaan, the one placed on a separate people of Canaan in Enoch’s time (discussed below), or something else entirely?  The later reference to Pharaoh being “cursed … as pertaining to the Priesthood” in the Book of Abraham presents Noah as the person giving the curse, which would indicate that any sort of priesthood ban (if it is to be understood that way) originated after the flood (and thus long after Cain had murdered Abel).  Further, any belief that the curse was the one placed on Cain is made by way of assumption rather than what is explicitly stated, since the word Cain does not even appear in the Book of Abraham.

It should also be noted here that the standard linguistic style of marking descendants of someone is to add -ite to the end of the person’s name.  Thus, a descendant of Cain would be known as a Cainite (or, as some scholars have suggested, Kenite),[16] not a Canaanite, which designates a descendant of Canaan rather than Cain.  While the names Canaan and Cain sound similar in English, they are distinct names and the -ite forms refer to distinct groups.  The lineage of Pharaoh and the Egyptians as given in the Book of Abraham, thus, is not directly connected to Cain, as is suggested in the Church’s Old Testament manual, but instead to Canaan or the people of Canaan.

There are two separate groups in our scriptures that are referred to as Canaanites.  The best-known group is composed of the descendants of Ham’s son Canaan, who went on to settle in the Levant, later to face conquest by the House of Israel.  The other is a group found in Joseph Smith’s revision to the Bible, in the section about Enoch.  In the narrative, Enoch prophesies that this people of Canaan “shall go forth in battle array against the people of Shum, and shall slay them that they shall utterly be destroyed.”  For this act of genocide, Enoch prophesied that “the Lord shall curse the land with much heat, and the barrenness thereof shall go forth forever; and there was a blackness came upon all the children of Canaan” (Moses 7:7-8).  Again, if we believe the idea that Cain and his descendants were marked with black skin, this story would emphasize that the people of Canaan and the seed of Cain were two separate peoples—it would be redundant for “a blackness” come upon “all the children of Canaan” during or after Enoch’s time if they were already has blackness because of a mark that was in place as part of Cain’s punishment.  Whether the blood of the Canaanites spoken of in the Book of Abraham is connected to the people of Canaan in Enoch’s story or Canaan, the son of Ham, there is not an explicit link to Cain and his seed.

Some people may object to what I’ve reasoned here with the idea that President Brigham Young filled in the gaps that I’ve pointed out with prophetic insight.  My response is that if we are cautious about accepting other aspects of Brigham Young’s doctrinal teachings, we should probably also be cautious about accepting his statements about Cain.  Even in the immediate aftermath of his life, some Church leaders felt that “in the promulgation of doctrine he took liberties beyond those to which he was legitimately entitled.”[17]  In more recent times, the Church has explicitly rejected his belief that Adam is our God and his ideas about blood atonement.[18]    In fact, the Gospel Topics essay on “Race and the Priesthood” can reasonably be understood to be the Church’s repudiation of Brigham Young’s beliefs about Cain, with its efforts to contextualize his statements in the racist discourse of 19th century America and its disavowal of “theories advanced in the past that black skin is a sign of divine disfavor or curse.”  While there is a lot we can and should respect about President Brigham Young and what he said and did as president of the Church, it seems to me that it is the best course to regard Brigham Young’s statements about Cain as doctrinal speculations based on the beliefs he learned from his culture and that those beliefs are not binding on us today or supported by the scriptures.  As the late scholar Armand L. Mauss wrote:

Much of the conventional “explanation” for the priesthood restriction was simply borrowed from the racist heritage of nineteenth-century Europe and America, especially from the justifications for slavery used in the ante-bellum South. Understandable—even forgivable—as such a resort might have been for our LDS ancestors, it is neither understandable nor forgivable in the twenty-first century. It is an unnecessary burden of misplaced apologetics that has been imposed by our history upon the universal and global aspirations of the Church. Until we dispense with this explanation once and for all, it will continue to encumber the efforts of today’s Church leaders and public affairs spokespersons to convince the world, and especially the black people of North America, that the Church is for all God’s children.[19]

To wrap things up, it is my belief that the idea of tracing the priesthood and temple ban back to the story of Cain murdering Abel doesn’t sustain scrutiny.  There is no mention in the scriptures of the curse placed on Cain involving the priesthood and there is also no clear link between Cain and Ham or modern people of black African ancestry.  Whether you believe that God was responsible for instituting the priesthood and temple ban or not, we are better off embracing the idea that God has given no explanation for the ban than we are perpetuating the idea that God cursed Cain to not hold the priesthood, that all black Africans are Cain’s descendants, and that they bore the curse of Cain up until 1978.

 

Footnotes and Further Reading:

[1] Eugene England, “The Mormon Cross,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 8, no. 1, 83-84.

[2] Dallin H. Oaks cited in “Apostles Talk about Reasons for Lifting Ban,” Daily Herald, Provo, Utah [5 June 1988]: 21 [Associated Press]; reproduced with commentary in Dallin H. Oaks, Life’s Lessons Learned: Personal Reflections [Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Co., 2011], 68-69.

[3] http://www.pbs.org/mormons/interviews/holland.html

[4] https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/gospel-topics-essays/race-and-the-priesthood?lang=eng, accessed 7/29/2020.

[5] Old Testament Student Manual Genesis-2 Samuel, 3rd ed. (SLC: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1980, 1981, 2003), 57, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/old-testament-student-manual-genesis-2-samuel/genesis-4-11-the-patriarchs?lang=eng&clang=pes&_r=1.

[6] See Ben Spackman, “Inerrancy among Church Employees about Church Materials,” Ben Spackman: Historian of Religion, Science, and Biblical Interpretation, 22 January 2020, https://benspackman.com/2020/01/22/inerrancy-among-si-about-church-materials/ for a discussion of this incident.  See also the current Institute manual for the Book of Mormon and Sean Walker, “We are all part of the same divine familiy,” KSL.com 20 January 2020.

[7] Manuscript History of the Church, 13 Feb. 1849, LDS Church Archives.

[8] See, for example, Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, Vol. 4, p.97, Journal of Discourses 2:142-43 (3 Dec. 1854), 2:184 (18 Feb. 1855), 7:290-91 (9 Oct. 1859), 11:272 (19 Aug. 1866); May 4, 1855, New York Herald, p. 8; Horace Greeley, An Overland Journey from New York to San Francisco in the Summer of 1859, (New York, H. H. Bancroft and Co., 1860), pp. 211-12; Matthias Cowley, Wilford Woodruff (Salt Lake City, The Deseret News Press, 1909), p. 351.

[9] Genesis 4:3-16, NRSV.

[10] Moses 5:24-25 and 29.  Compare to https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/old-testament-revision-2/17 and https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/old-testament-revision-1/11.

[11] It should be noted here this idea is also suggested by an insertion in the Joseph Smith translation of the Bible.  As Joseph Smith elaborated on the story of Enoch, it is noted that outside of the community called Zion, Enoch saw that the residue of the people “were a mixture of all the seed of Adam save it was the seed of Cain, for the seed of Cain were black, and had not place among them” (Moses 7:22).

[12] MacCulloch, Diarmaid. Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years (p. 868). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[13] https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/gospel-topics-essays/race-and-the-priesthood?lang=eng, accessed 7/29/2020.

[14] Alma Allred, “The Traditions of Their Fathers: Myth versus Reality in LDS Scriptural Writings,” in Black and Mormon, ed. Darron Smith and Newell G. Bringhurst (p. 42). University of Illinois Press. Kindle Edition.

[15] D. Michael Quinn, Early Mormonism and the Magic World View (Salt Lake City, Utah: Signature Books, 1987), 167, 177, 179; 1998 ed., 221, 222.

[16] The Kenites were a nomadic group known for their skill as coppersmiths and metalworkers that were possibly connected to the Midianites at first, but eventually settled among the tribe of Judah.  Some Biblical scholars have suggested that the story of Cain was originally from another context (one not associated with the creation and early history of humanity) and that he was understood to be the eponymous ancestor of the Kenites.  See, for example, The New Oxford Annotated Bible, New Revised Stand Version with the Apocrypha, Fully Revised Fourth Edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 16-17.

[17] George Q. Cannon Journal, 29 August 1877, https://www.churchhistorianspress.org/george-q-cannon/1870s/1877/08-1877?lang=eng.

[18] For the former, see, for one of several possible examples, Spencer W. Kimball, “Our Own Liahona,” Ensign (November 1976), 77, which states that “We warn you against the dissemination of doctrines which are not according to the Scriptures and which are alleged to have been taught by some of the General Authorities of past generations. Such, for instance, is the Adam-God theory. We denounce that theory and hope that everyone will be cautioned against this and other kinds of false doctrine.” See also Wilford Woodruff’s statement in The Latter-day Saint Millennial Star 57:23 (6 June 1895):355-56.  For the latter doctrine, see “Mormon church statement on blood atonement,” Deseret News, 18 June 2010 (https://www.deseret.com/2010/6/18/20122138/mormon-church-statement-on-blood-atonement), which states that: “So-called ‘blood atonement,’ by which individuals would be required to shed their own blood to pay for their sins, is not a doctrine of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  We believe in and teach the infinite and all-encompassing atonement of Jesus Christ, which makes forgiveness of sin and salvation possible for all people.”

[19]  Armand L. Mauss, “Dispelling the Curse of Cain, Or How to Explain the Old Priesthood Ban Without Looking Ridiculous,” Sunstone October 2004, pp. 56-61, https://www.sunstonemagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/sbi/articles/134-56-61.pdf.

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