Curses!

A discussion I had recently with a friend of mine reminded me of one of my other favorite soap boxes that I haven’t stood on in this forum before. No, it has nothing to do with swearing (in a traditional sense at least). Today I’m more interested in the sort of curses that God lays on peoples. Like on the Lamanites and stuff. And yeah I know that there is nothing new in the ‘Nacle so I’ll just say outright that I haven’t even looked elsewhere to see who has already broached the subject and what they said. Feel free to restate and/or link.

I should begin by saying that there is a difference, apparently, between how curses work when applied to individuals versus peoples. Individual curses seem to be deserving of the ominous associations that come with the word, the classic example being Cain of course. I’m going to argue that this is less true when applied to groups of people.

I think that it is best to start with the Lamanites. The heart of the curse lies in 2 Ne. 3:4-7. Verse four says that if they are obedient then there is no cursing but if they are wicked they will be cut off from God. This doesn’t sound much like a cursing; it sounds a lot like a reiteration of what each of us faces throughout our whole lives. It is more like a prophecy for their people than a punishment above and beyond what any other people face. A prophecy which can be nullified at any time by individuals and groups via the first clause, namely that there will be no cursing if they will be obedient. That this is completely true is seen on multiple occasions in the BoM where individuals and groups of Lamanites repent and are no longer cut off from God. I think that this represents a good type of other cursed people. We’ll address color of skin issues later.

The next, and perhaps most sensitive, example of cursed peoples are those who are said to have descended from Cain. Supposedly, because of Cain’s wickedness his descendants were cursed to have black skin and no right to the priesthood. To start, I’m very suspicious about the whole Black people come from Cain story anyway. It seems more like a good story to explain their existence (like the stories that explain the origins of other peoples like Edomites, etc.) than it does like history. The story also could potentially serve as the vehicle for other literary devices which I’ll not get into. It sufficeth me to say that I’m skeptical of its historicity.

But even if I play along and approach the subject as though it really happened (because it might have, I’m just highly doubtful), I still don’t necessarily see the evidence for the idea that black people have black skin and can’t have the priesthood just because they have Cain as a cursed ancestor. According to Genesis, Cain was cursed from ever farming again. He was also promised that no one would murder him for his sin so that he’d have to live with the consequences of his actions. And he was marked, whatever it was. Traditionally this meant that he had black skin and so did his descendants.

The Book of Moses, of course, tells it differently. For his poor offering, Cain is cursed to be known as Perdition, the father of lies, and the cause of all evil in the world. (Mos. 5:24-5) He is given a chance to forgo this curse and repent but he refuses. He kills Abel and is cursed again, this time with the Biblical cursing of not being able to farm. He is promised that he will be a fugitive and a vagabond in the earth (but not too much apparently because his wife and friends didn’t leave him and he had kids and stuff). More interestingly, though, is that Cain describes this as a result of being driven from the face of the Lord, similar to the promise to the Lamanites that the real result of their cursing would be a disconnect with God. In any case, Cain gets his mark and the subject is closed. Except it isn’t.

In Moses 7:8, Enoch is speaking and the way that the is verse laid things out it sounds as though the blackness of the descendants of Cain came only after they attacked the people of Shum and assumed their land (I wouldn’t be surprised if Shum was in Africa, another convenient story of explanation). So now we have no direct evidence that Cain’s curse included that his people be black and instead we have evidence that the “blackness” came later, possibly from intermingling with the inhabitants of Shum.

I am unable to find any example in the Bible of a person explicitly described as being black and holding the priesthood. But I can’t find any prohibitions about it either. God’s people were a single nation, and a nation commanded not to mix with any other people at all (though they did and quite frequently). The gospel and priesthood were limited, apparently, to a small nation of people who, whatever color they were, were not black. I think that this represents a better explanation of why we find no black priesthood holders in the Bible. After all, how many Assyrians, Babylonians, etc do we find with the priesthood? The gospel was limited to a single people, the Blacks were not alone in exclusion and it wasn’t even a God-mandated exclusion. This same explanation could be applied to Nephites and Lamanites. It was a cultural exclusion, not a commanded exemption.

The other Biblical examples of priesthood exclusion have reasonable explanations too. When only the Levites could hold the priesthood it should be noted that the entire Mosaic system was put into place as a result of widespread wickedness. It was not an exclusion of a single race due to their heritage and ancestry, it was a nearly complete blackout caused by wickedness among God’s people. As a dispensation, the whole thing was an anomaly in our view. No prejudice against blacks can be tacked on God here.

In the NT, only Jews could be members of the Church for a time after Jesus’ death. This meant that only they could hold the priesthood. However, this exclusion was universal again, like in the OT. Also, it was in part due to the ignorance of the Apostles and their learning curve. God revealed the truth to them in fairly short order. After the Gospel was opened to all people, there is again no evidence that Black people were excluded that I can find.

One of the places which people have often turned to in order to defend the concept of excluding Blacks from the priesthood is Abraham. This, in truth, might be their strongest place of evidence in the scriptures. However, the story is not as straightforward as might seem and can yield several differing interpretations.

The verses in question concern Pharaoh and his heritage. He is said to be a descendant of Ham, son of Noah, and of the Canaanites. Ham is said to have married the Canaanite Egyptus, thus preserving the curse in the land through his lineage. For starters, this is confusing because the Egyptians were not Black. The Egyptians were a different race entirely. How can this curse being preserved be the black skin of Cain if the people weren’t even black?

Secondly, Pharaoh, though he is righteous, possibly didn’t have the priesthood because he didn’t have a father with the priesthood. Ham was apparently cursed from the priesthood for his sins against his father, Noah. This sounds like excommunication (or its equivalent) to me. While some may argue that it is possible that Pharaoh was then doubly excluded because of his lineage, I think that the truth is probably more complicated. Abraham, obviously a contemporary of Pharaoh, also had a hard time obtaining the priesthood because his dad couldn’t give it to him. He had to search and search until he found Melchezidek (apparently) and only then was it given to him. Why Abraham didn’t give it to him I confess I’m uncertain of.

To be fair, the strongest evidence for his lineal exclusion is Abraham 1:27 which reads: “Now, Pharaoh being of the lineage by which he could not have the right of the Priesthood…” This follows a paragraph where Pharaoh is said to have apparently been blessed by Noah to have the blessings of the earth and wisdom but being cursed with regards to the priesthood. Seems straightforward, right? Maybe.

The blessings and cursing seem to have come straight from Noah. Ham is said in the OT to have been cursed but only to be a servant. This doesn’t sound like priesthood exclusion language to me. It sounds like a prophecy about future inter-relations between neighboring nations (or another explanation as to why things are the way things are) to me. Our PoGP doesn’t directly cover the story of Noah and Ham so we can’t go there. The blessings sound similar to Esau’s who sold his birthright but that connection doesn’t seem to have any bearing. It is possible that it is a reference to a lost blessing and cursing upon Ham as it says that it was given by Noah his father, language not necessarily out of line with a Hebrew background. Verse 27 says that Pharaoh was from the wrong lineage but it is difficult to tell which lineage is the “wrong” one or what it means at all. The most certain thing that we can say here is that Pharaoh could not hold the priesthood and it seems to have had something to do with his lineage. It could be because he descended from Egyptus or because he descended from Ham or because he was personally cursed for whatever reason. In any case, the situation is far from clear and doesn’t even take into account whether this should be taken literally. So it’s evidence, but it is not as strong as some make it out to be.

As counter evidence to the whole concept of races being cursed from the priesthood and into dark skin, I’d like to offer something I can’t substantiate (but someone out there can one way or another). And that is Joseph Smith’s ordination of Black persons. I’ve heard from several people I consider trustworthy that it occurred. In fact, I’ve been told on several occasions that there is no certain date as to when the Church began preventing Blacks from holding the priesthood but that it probably began after Joseph’s death. This could potentially relegate the entire concept to a temporary policy taken way out of hand in our dispensation. Can anyone out there point me one way or the other?

Ultimately, my dislike of the traditional explanation of how these curses work stems from my belief that God would not treat his children in the ways that these explanations give. One doctrine that I’ve never felt good about that often gets brought up in these discussions is the doctrine of election. According to this concept, people who were less valiant in the pre-mortal existence are most likely to get sent to earth at a time and place where they will likely not hear the gospel. I hate this idea completely. By this standard an overwhelming percentage of the people who are living and even more who have ever lived and died get relegated to “not very valiant in the pre-existence” status. It is completely absurd and utterly offensive. Maybe those people represent a theological conundrum but we need to find a better explanation. I don’t believe that God treats his children this way. He does not now nor ever has, I believe, withheld the blessings of exaltation, blessings only available via the holding and administering of the priesthood, from a single people while extending it to the rest of the world. And please don’t argue that all those people get to get their priesthood in the next life, I simply don’t believe it. If they can get it there then they should be able to get it here, there is no difference. God is not racist only against mortals. The whole thing flails desperately for legitimacy and fails miserably.

In fact, the whole idea that God is willing to curse an entire race of people, millions of souls, because of the sins of an individual, or a few individuals, doesn’t gel with me. I know that the sins of the fathers are to be visited on the heads of the children to the third and fourth generation but I am confident that this is not what the prophet had in mind when he said that. And to curse a people from having any hope for exaltation during their mortal lives from the beginning of the human family until the final few years before the Second Coming because of one man’s murderous intentions is unfair and unjust in the extreme. These are not characteristics that I can attribute to God. I’ve spent my entire life trying to justify God in these positions, as many others have, and have finally come up empty. I don’t think that God did this, I think that man did it. At the very least, God did not withhold the priesthood from Blacks since Cain, probably only since Brigham Young or maybe Joseph. Or whenever his chosen people were racist and unready. And even then I’d be willing to bet that had we, the Church, been ready for the Blacks to receive the priesthood it would have come generations sooner, possibly just post-Civil War.

Because of the strength of family and social traditions, it is easily seen how a single man’s sins can be felt for many years through many people. I would expect this to be especially true when the individuals were personally cursed by God. But as with Laman and Lemuel, I expect that many of the long lasting consequences will be heaped on the heads of those who began these chains of sin which God allowed/allows to occur and that individual descendants never were completely cut off from priesthood blessings because of their ancestor’s sins. I believe that what really occurs is that individuals curse peoples and races through their serious sins via learned negative social and cultural practices. And when God’s people are unready and unwilling to hear all God has to reveal to them, some people suffer unfortunately. I believe that people were and are the problem, not God. Period. And if I’m wrong then I’d rather be wrong in attributing too much love and equality to God and not enough justice and judgment than the other way around. And if I’m wrong, I’d almost rather be wrong than right about this.

OK, so there is the soapbox. I know that it is likely to cause some strong feelings (it certainly does in me) but I want you all to know that my intention here is not to pot stir or offend, only to share my assessment of one of the most difficult issues the Church has faced and is still facing. All respectful comments are welcome but any rude or offensive comments will be deleted.

10 Comments

Filed under Bible, Book of Mormon, Doctrine, LDS Church History, Marginalia, Personal Issues, Speculation

10 responses to “Curses!

  1. LXXLuther, before writing so much, I would consider reading a bit. The curse of Cain being black skin is one of the most unfortunate pseudo-doctrines considered by our people. I would check out Stirling’s post here and the subsequent comments.

    Check out Lester Bush’s article “Mormonism’s Negro Doctrine: An Historical Overview,” It is a bit dated as there has been a significant amount of scholarship in this area since the 1970′s. Check out Margaret Young or Darius Grey.

    The fact that we as a people and that our hierarchy held so many racist ideas is one of our greatest shames.

  2. lxxluthor, you’ve inspired a thought. Perhaps Eve was cursed by God (due to her act in the Garden of Eden) with exclusion from the priesthood for her and her female descendants until…the curse gets taken off…in Official Declaration #3… Whaddya think?

  3. lxxluthor

    J: Thanks for the link. I know I could be way off line or out of touch but I decided not to look for previous discussions on the subject so that I could converse with others who don’t have that knowledge of previous conversations either. It was supposed to be a fresh discussion. Apparently it failed.

    LDS A: Do you think then that men would be allowed to stop working too?! And women wouldn’t have kids anymore?! This is a great idea!

  4. We believe that men will be punished for their own sins …

  5. a random John

    Personally I think it it great to do some independent thinking about an issue without reading all the articles that are out there on the topic. Similar to the logic John Nash uses in A Beautiful Mind that he wanted to approach problems from a fresh perspective, without getting locked into the patterns of thinking that others had used.

    I remember back to before I had ever heard about Elija Abel, or any of history behind this issue that we NEVER discuss in Church. I never understood how the ban meshed with the idea that we are punished for our own sins and not for Adam’s transgression. I also thought that the not valiant in the PE excuse always rang hollow and sounded like somebody made it up as a justification after realizing the thing about the article of faith I mentioned.

    I wish that the information that I finally was presented in the last year of institute had been told to me in Sunday School or even Seminary.

  6. Lxxluther, I apologize if I crashed the party a bit. I think there is lots of room for unconstrained or uninformed musings or speculations…even with cursing (e.g., what are the ramifications of feet dusting or cursing by the authority of the priesthood?). However, the curse of Cain/Ham as a justification for the priesthood ban is simply so destructive that I believe it is important to have some level of familiarity with the historiography.

  7. lxxluthor

    Stephen: Couldn’t have said it better myself.

    ARJ: Thanks for the support, I’m feeling like I probably crossed a line with this one.

    J: You are probably right, this is a way sensitive issue. My only word to add to what you said is that so many people, even usually well informed people, don’t always have all the info they need to work with and issue (as in this case with me, ARJ until a year ago). If I could have hoped anything for this post it would have been a kind of opportunity for the uninformed and the informed to come together and reason. I know that it has been done before but I also know that it can be beneficial to repeat the process from time to time for those that missed the prior opportunities. I will be reading the link you gave as soon as I have 5 mins to myself.

  8. David J

    I’m waiting for the media to get all over Romney on this one (19th-20th century authorized Mormon racism). Watching him squirm, flip-flop, and wiggle his way out of difficult situations is a hobby of mine.

  9. LXX,

    Don’t worry, the bloggernacle know-it-alls didn’t start out that way. Just go back and read the posts from early 2005 on any of the old individual blogs and you will see what I mean. Kudos for coming to the right answer (the folklore justifications for the priesthood ban are bunk) without having it handed to you by someone else. Given the direction of your thinking, I suspect you will be very intersted to learn more. As another recommendation to add to J’s, you would certainly enjoy the following: interview with Darius Gray on Mormon Stories.

  10. I should have said, Darius Gray does most of the talking in that interview, but it is actually an interview of him and Margaret Young, didn’t mean to leave her out.