Marcus Martins discusses Blacks and the Priesthood

I just finished reading a book by Marcus Martins called Setting the Record Straight: Blacks and the Priesthood.  It was an interesting perspective.  Marcus is the son of Helvecio Martins, the first black general authority that I blogged about previously.  “Setting the record straight” is a bit of an exaggeration.  Marcus does a good job of showing forgiveness, and he tries to address some of the common folklore.  He approaches the subject from a spiritual perspective more than a historical one.  So, if you’re looking for history, you’re going to be a bit disappointed.  But there were a few things I found interesting.

The curse of Ham has been invoked as a reason why blacks were somehow unworthy to hold the priesthood.  Genesis 9:20-27 discusses a really odd incident between Noah and his son Ham.  In a nutshell, apparently Noah is drunk and naked in his tent.

And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his brethren without.  And Shem and Japheth took a garment, and laid it upon both their shoulders, and went backward, and covered the nakedness of their father;  and their faces were backward, and they saw not their father’s nakedness.

And Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his younger son had done unto him.  And he said, Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren.  And he said, Blessed be the Lord god of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant.”

I don’t know about you, but I really find this passage vague.  What exactly did Ham do to Noah?  I don’t know, but it is apparent that Noah is upset.  Noah is the drunk guy here, and that seems to me to be the real source of wrong in the story–not some vague thing that Ham happened to see his dad naked–unless there is more to the story–apparently there is more to the story.  Martins discusses an apocryphal tale on pages 12-13.

One of the traditions based on version of the above account found in apocryphal Judeo-Christian texts7[footnote reads, “For details on these traditions and how popular they were among Protestant clergy in the early 1800s, see Goldenberg, The Curse of Ham, and Stephen R. Haynes, Noah’s Curse] states that Noah possessed a special item of clothing that had been handed down by his ancestors since Adam.  Some argue that this clothing had been given by God to Adam in the Garden of Eden, and that it still carried “the smell of paradise.”  Some traditions also state that this garment conferred upon whoever wore it supernatural powers (priesthood).

The texts claim that Canaan (or Ham in some sources) stole Noah’s garment and claimed to have Noah’s power.  When Noah came to himself and learned what had happened, he punished either Ham or Canaan for the attempted priestly coup d’etat with a “curse” by which they would have no claim on the priesthood but would be subjected to (be a “servant”) the leadership of Shem and Japheth.

The story is largely unknown to the general public, but knowledge of it seems to have been reasonably widespread among the clergy.  Because centuries-old traditions claim that Black Africans are the descendants of Ham and Canaan, for centuries this apocryphal story was used among traditional Christian denominations as an endorsement of slavery.  What the early Latter-day Saint leaders did was to make public a piece of information that until then had been disseminated only in the most restricted ecclesiastical circles.

I was hoping that he’d go into more detail, but instead he starts talking about our premortal life, the war in heaven, and debunks any claims that blacks were “fence-sitters” there.  I would have preferred that he kept with this apocryphal story.  Marcus tries to discuss why the ban wasn’t addressed sooner, and I found his classification of church presidents interesting.  From page 42, (I have changed formatting)

  • “The main focus of the administration of President John Taylor (1877-87) may be said to have been defending the Church against unrelenting federal persecution as a response to polygamy.
  • Later, the administration of President Wilford Woodruff (1887-98) deals primarily with the social, economic, and political adaptations needed to obtain statehood for Utah.
  • The short-lived administration of President Lorenzo Snow (1898-1901) focused on avoiding financial bankruptcy.
  • President Joseph F. Smith’s tenure (1901-18) dealt with restoring the Church’s financial stability, building a friendlier relationship with the federal government, and later dealing with challenges brought by World War I.
  • President Heber J. Grant’s administration (1918-45) focused on the excess of the so-called ‘Roaring Twenties,” then the social turmoil caused by the Great Depression, and finally on the challenges of members of the Church on both sides of World War II.

All these issues affected the entire membership of the Church, whereas the priesthood ban affected only what appers to be, in the absence of precise statistics, a small percentage of membership of that era.

While I applaud Martins’ desire not to point blame, it seems to me that the “small percentage” could have been larger if the church had actively proselyted blacks.  For some reason, Martins skips the George Albert Smith (1945-55), David O. McKay (1955-1970), Joseph Fielding Smith (1970-72), Harold B. Lee (1972-73) administrations.  While I understand Joseph and Harold were very short in duration, it seems to me that McKay was the president that really made the church a worldwide institution.  But Martins says that it was under President Kimball that the church became worldwide.  I’m not sure that I agree with that with McKay building temples in New Zealand, and expanding missions in Europe and South American like never before.  Prince outlines that McKay even called a mission president to Nigeria, though a civil war brought that mission to a premature close.  Anyway, let me continue quoting from page 43,

Only during President Spencer W. Kimball’s administration (1973-85) did the Church began to position itself as a truly worldwide institution.  It was only at that point in the history of the Church that the priesthood ban moved up in the scale of priorities and became an issue that affected not only a large number of members but also the very identity of the Church, then beginning to be recognized as a truly worldwide religion.

Well, I don’t think he read Prince’s book, so I disagree with his characterization.  (I plan to write a series of posts on the McKay biography, but I wanted to get a few other posts in before then.  McKay’s biography by Greg Prince in 2005 pre-dates Martins book in 2007.)  Anyway, I wanted to discuss how Martins characterized the 1978 revelation.  Bishop Rick commented that the 1978 revelation “was not the product of revelation” and he characterized it as a vote.  Martins seems to disagree with that point of view.  From page 52,

we have modern witnesses of a powerful revelation confirming the universal scope of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ and the broad reach of its promised blessings.  Some of the Brethren who were present when the Lord manifested his will in 1978 have left their solemn testimonies to the world.  Elder McConkie said the following:

“[When] President Kimball finished his prayer, the Lord gave a revelation by the power of the Holy Ghost….On this occasion…the Lord…poured out the Holy Ghost in a miraculous manner, beyond anything any then present had ever experienced…

“The revelation came to the President of the Church; it also came to each individual present.  There were ten members of the Council of Twelve and three in the First Presidency there assembled.”26 [McConkie, “All are Alike unto God,” 152-55]

Contrary to expectations, it was not just President Kimball receiving the revelation and asking his councilors and the Twelve Apostles to concur.  All thirteen prophets, seers, and revelators present in that meeting received the same revelation.  All of the then-living prophets, seers, and revelators, with the exception of two–Elder Mark E. Peterson, who was traveling abroad, and Elder Delbert Stapley who was gravely ill at the hospital–received the same revelation at the same time.  Elder David B. Haight in a general conference address in 1996 testified of that experience:

“I was in the temple when President Spencer W. Kimball received the revelation regarding the priesthood.  I was the junior member of the Quorum of the Twelve….I was there with the outpouring of the Spirit in that room so strong that none of us could speak afterwards.  We just left quietly to go back to the office.  No none could say anything because of the powerful outpouring of the heavenly spiritual experience.” [Haight, “This Work is True,” Ensign, May 1996, 23.]

President Gordon B. Hinckley expressed in similar words his own testimony of that miraculous event:

“There was a hallowed and sanctified atmosphere in the room.  For me it felt as if a conduit opened between the heavenly throne and the kneeling, pleading prophet of God who was joined by his brethren.  the Spirit of God was there.  And by the power of the Holy Ghost there came to the prophet an assurance that the thing for which he prayed was right, that the time had come, and that now the wondrous blessings of the priesthood should be extended to worthy men everywhere, regardless of lineage.

“Every man in that circle, by the power of the Holy Ghost, knew the same thing.  No voice audible to our physical ears was heard.  But the voice of the Spirit whispered with certainty into our minds and our very souls.  No one of us who was present was ever quite the same after that.  Nor has the Church been quite the same.”28 [Hinckley, “Fireside Marks 159 Years Since Priesthood was Restored,” Ensign, August 1988, 75-76.]

While we don’t know why there was a priesthood ban, we do know that the ban ended when the Lord himself gave a powerful revelation to his living prophets.  I believe the testimony of those men.  They were prophets of God.  So whatever the reason for the ban, it remains with the Lord himself.

So, what do you think of the Curse of Ham, the 1978 revelation, and Martins portrayal of events?


22 comments on “Marcus Martins discusses Blacks and the Priesthood

  1. So whatever the reason for the ban, it remains with the Lord himself.

    wow…that’s awfully forgiving of racist men to blame the Lord on a man made ban. You don’t note here if Marcus brings up when exactly the ban began within Mormonism. Does he bring up Brigham Young’s tirades against blacks from the 1850s?

  2. MH,

    Below our my thoughts on the subject. I hope you don’t mind me taking so much space. If you do, please delete.

    I hope you and others will read it and give me your assessment.

    One of the Bloggernacles’ frequent topics is the priesthood ban. I haven’t paid much attention to this issue because it was resolved in 1978; at least that’s how I see it. But for others; many who weren’t even born, or were children in 1978, the priesthood ban seems to be a source of difficulty— a stumbling block to their faith.

    Before moving forward, I don’t claim to have any special insight into this subject. My sources are the scriptures and the words of the living prophets— sources all church members have available to them. If someone can use the scripture to show me that what I’ve written is in error, I invite them to do so; I am interested in the truth.

    First, a few questions to orientate our thinking:

    1. Who is the head of the church?

    For believing members there can only be one answer— Jesus Christ (3 Nephi 27:8).

    2. Does the Lord inspire and lead His chosen prophets?

    The scripture answer this question in the affirmative. (1 Nephi 22:2, Amos 3:7).

    3. Can a prophet of the Lord err— be fallible?

    The scriptures give clear understanding they can, and have. (D&C 1:24-28).

    4. Will the Lord permit a fallible prophet to frustrate His will?


    The works, and the designs, and the purposes of God cannot be frustrated, neither can they come to naught. D&C 3:1

    5. Has the Lord intervened when a prophet erred on an important doctrinal matter because of the culture they lived in?

    Yes, Peter was taught by the Lord in a dream/vision to take the gospel to the Gentiles (Acts 10:9-16). This was contrary to Jewish culture, and the Saviors own teachings when He was with His disciples (Matt 10:5-6). He told them not to go to the Gentiles, but now the Lord was sending the gospel to all men. The Lord intervened at this time because it was His will that the Gentiles receive the gospel.


    Based on these scriptures, it reasonable to believe the Lord could have intervened to overrule the ban on blacks and the priesthood early in church history, but it wasn’t His will to do so until 1978.

    The ban isn’t the central issue— in my opinion. The central issue is understanding how the Lord works with His fallible prophets to accomplish His will. I believe the Lord is very close to His prophets. He isn’t an absentee Deity. I don’t see any reason, based on the scriptures, to conclude the Lord’s will is ultimately frustrated because of fallible prophets. That would be equivalent to the tail wagging the dog. The history of the priesthood ban doesn’t need to be a difficult subject to deal with. This is especially true for those who have studied the scriptures and thereby understand the “dealings” of the Lord.


    The priesthood ban will continue to be a controversial part of church history for some members. I hope those who fall into that camp will have their testimonies grounded and rooted in gospel essentials. If they do, then they will be safe while they wait on the Lord to answer their prayers regarding this aspect of church history.

  3. Jared, I don’t have a real problem with what you said. It seems to be very aligned with Marcus Martins, who felt that he and his father weren’t missing out on anything essential when denied the priesthood. I found Martins inclusion of apostles’ testimony very inspirational.

    Let’s look a bit closer at 2 and 3 for a minute.

    2. Does the Lord inspire and lead His chosen prophets?

    The scripture answer this question in the affirmative. (1 Nephi 22:2, Amos 3:7).

    3. Can a prophet of the Lord err— be fallible?

    The scriptures give clear understanding they can, and have. (D&C 1:24-28).

    So are you saying the fallible prophet erred with regards to inspiration concerning the ban?

    I doubt you were here to read my really long post from 2 years ago asking Was the Priesthood Ban Inspired? I’d be curious to hear your answer to that question.

  4. My thought is that the Lord’s will was accomplished as He intended it. He is the head of the church. The prophets move forward as men, doing the based they kind at any given time. If they move in a direction, as with the priesthood ban, and it’s the Lord’s will to make a change then circumstances will evolve and the prophets will seek further light and knowledge and revelation results.

  5. Jared, your answer is very vague, and I’m not clear where you stand on the issue. If God and Joseph Smith were fine with Elijah Abel, Joseph Ball, and Walker Lewis (to name a few) receiving the priesthood prior to 1846, why did God suddenly think the priesthood ban was a good idea from 1847-1978 (with notable exceptions of Elijah’s son in 1900 and grandson in 1934)? You might want to review my post on Early Black Mormons.

    Jane Manning James pleaded with Brigham Young and John Taylor to receive the endowment as late as 1884 (two days after Elijah Abel died) and was denied. (Abel had received the Initiatory part of the Endowment.) Jane couldn’t be sealed to her husband. Do you really think that God was pleased with this result? Do you really believe that the Brethren’s solution to posthumously seal Jane as a servant of Joseph was a decision inspired by God?

    If so, why don’t we all wait until we’re dead to receive the endowment and sealing ordinances like Jane did? After all, it seems to me that you’re saying “the Lord’s will was accomplished as He intended it.” Am I missing something here?

    I am greatly impressed with Marcus and Helvicio Martins. They have forgiving hearts and are tremendous examples of love, patience, and forgiveness. But I don’t think we need to pretend that bad things happened and it was “the Lord’s will” or that these injustices were “accomplished as He intended it.”

    I think God is displeased when we rationalize bad behavior.

  6. Jared,

    4. Will the Lord permit a fallible prophet to frustrate His will?

    That’s an interesting phrasing of your logic, because you know there’s a problem with the priesthood ban. You’re putting the blame on the Lord as well for a ban that never originated with the Lord. It’s easier to blame the Lord rather than men…which is truly strange. It’s as if man should not be held accountable for bad decisions. Your use of the D&C 3 scripture implies that the Apostasy was the will of the Lord and not the attempts of Satan to frustrate the designs of God. Your logic implies that anything bad that happens in this world was part of God’s design, and thus no man should be held accountable (least of all a prophet) for bad choices, because, after all, God planned it that way.

  7. MH & Dan–

    I think the first order of business in a discussion like this is to state that I am not debating. I am not attempting to win something or out do you in a competition. My objective is to have an exchange of perspectives with the hope growing in understanding.

    My perspective of former and current church leaders is that they are men of God. In the forty plus years I have been actively involved in studying church doctrine and history I have never found LDS church leaders united in attempts to steal, murder, or cheat to acquire treasure. I have yet to learn of them conspiring as a group to seduce others to satisfy their appetites of the flesh. I’m amazed that in the last 100 years that the GA have been virtually free of apostasy, schism, and the like.

    Lastly, I believe the Lord has given us the scripture to aid are search for truth. The scripture portray the world we live in as a fallen world of the lowest order (Moses 28:36). Consequently, there is by design many perplexing things to try are faith to determine our ability to find God (2 Nephi 31:13-21) amid the paradoxes we encounter (D&C 122, Mosiah 23:21-22), the priesthood ban being one of many.

    Truly, bad things can happen to good people in this world, even in the Lord’s church (Alma 14:8-11). Prophets and apostles can err even when they do the best they can with the light and knowledge they possess at a given time. However, the Lord is at the head of His church and will intervene when He chooses (Acts 10:9).

    I wish there never was a priesthood ban. The early leaders did what they thought was best and in 1978 due a changing world the prophets cried out to the Lord until they received an answer, a revelation.

    For me, this is the end of the story, done deal. However, I realize that others are troubled by it and their faith is challenged. Others, don’t want to think about it and chose to ignore it. I think the best course is to prayerfully poor over the scriptures and find comfort therein.

    I haven’t had the time to read MH post. I hope to do that before long.

    Thanks to Tara, MH, and Dan for responding.

  8. Jared,

    Prophets and apostles can err even when they do the best they can with the light and knowledge they possess at a given time.


    The early leaders did what they thought was best

    Doesn’t this logic go against your earlier point that the work of God will not be frustrated by man? After all, how can man, including the prophet, know of all God’s ways, if they only go by “the best they can with the light and knowledge they possess at a given time?” Given that Joseph Smith gave the priesthood to blacks and made one a Seventy, what new knowledge came to Brigham Young’s possession that completely altered that previous Joseph Smith policy? Can you show me a revelation from God from the time of Joseph Smith’s death to the time Brigham Young castigated blacks in 1852 that would shed some light on the subject?

    Let me just make one thing clear. I think Brother Brigham was about the best God could work with under the circumstances. He was God’s prophet. However, he was a terrible, unapologetic racist. And he influenced the church in a bad direction for over 100 years because of it.

  9. jared, I admire your perspective and welcome it. however, when you refuse to answer the tough questions and attribute the priesthood ban to god, you become party to rationalization of racism, or make god a racist. I think that’s an indefensible position, and the primary reason marcus martins resorted to the ‘we don’t know’ response. it is a weak answer, and your best answer. hand waving away the problem is a disservice to god. god is not a racist, but apparently he does call racist prophets.

  10. What about the LeGrand Richards interview? It is a very different portrayal of the black priesthood revelation.

  11. Dan & MH–

    In my opinion, the work of the Lord get done, as He intends. The priesthood ban was part of the Lord’s plan because He didn’t intervene in our day as he did in Acts 10:9-16. Now, this isn’t a politically correct statement in our day, and it really stokes the flames of criticism for some. I think a careful reading and understanding of the scriptures teaches that God curses and blesses people in ways that are very difficult to understand.

    MH wrote: “If God and Joseph Smith were fine with Elijah Abel, Joseph Ball, and Walker Lewis (to name a few) receiving the priesthood prior to 1846, why did God suddenly think the priesthood ban was a good idea from 1847-1978 (with notable exceptions of Elijah’s son in 1900 and grandson in 1934)? You might want to review my post on Early Black Mormons.

    Jane Manning James pleaded with Brigham Young and John Taylor to receive the endowment as late as 1884 (two days after Elijah Abel died) and was denied. (Abel had received the Initiatory part of the Endowment.) Jane couldn’t be sealed to her husband. Do you really think that God was pleased with this result? Do you really believe that the Brethren’s solution to posthumously seal Jane as a servant of Joseph was a decision inspired by God?”

    When I come up against an issue like this, and many others like it, I am puzzled and troubled for a season. However, over the years I’ve concluded that it isn’t for me to trouble myself over because it isn’t possible for me to know the truth and understand what really happened.

    I am able to take this approach because of the testimony I have been given of the Book of Mormon and the restoration of Christ church through the prophet Joseph Smith. In addition, because the the ordinances and priesthood I have received, I have on going experiences with the Holy Ghost that I didn’t have at one time.

    If I didn’t have the manifestations of the Spirit as I do, I would have a very difficult time with the hard questions.

  12. I agree with dan, especially the ‘affront to testimony’ part.

    tl, i’m not familiar with the legrand richards interview. do you have a source I could review?

  13. On the curse of Canaan see this at the JI: http://www.juvenileinstructor.org/noahs-nakedness-and-the-curse-of-canaan-gen-918-27/. And on Ham: http://www.juvenileinstructor.org/noahs-curse-on-canaan-redux-how-ham-got-to-africa/

    I flipped through this book a while back and was startled at how problematic it is. Yikes.

  14. Setting the Record Straight is the name of the series.

    I had Brother Martins for Book of Mormon at Ricks College after my mission (1998). I interviewed him for the school paper about the ban on the 20th anniversary of the lifting.

    I asked him the reason for the ban. I was expecting a complex answer. In his very deep voice he said, “Racism.”

    One word.

    His PhD is in sociology with a focus on Race and Religion. This book, which I have read, is not heavy hitting, but it is not meant to be that way.

  15. @mh
    @ #15
    He was interviewed, on tape, shortly after the revelation at 50 North Temple was made public by Wesley P. Walters and Chris Vlachos that was in 1978. I’m sure it must be online, been years since I read it but it doesn’t jibe with the Bruce R. McConkie quote given by Martin.

  16. Dan–

    Somehow you’ve reach conclusions from what I’ve written that are not accurate. I’m not communicating as effectively as I’d like. So let me address a couple of points so you can understand my perspective accurately.

    Dan wrote: “A plea for the bliss of ignorance is not acceptable, especially when there are recorded accounts of what actually took place.”

    In no way do I advocate hiding from the issues of our history. In the early sixties I was in the military, very inactive and associating with black soldiers in the civil-rights era. I spend some of my time in the southern states and saw first hand the way things were then. I saw some of my black buddies with the look of fear and angry in their eyes when they couldn’t go to some of the places I could. We were preparing to ship out to Viet Nam and I found it ironic black soldiers were willing to put their life on the line in the service of their country, but couldn’t go to the bars, night clubs, and cafes I frequented. To make a long story short, I saw the racism of the south first hand.

    After the military and my church mission I turned my attention towards studying church doctrine and history. I read everything I could on the priesthood ban.

    In 1978 when the revelation was received I was elated. I picked up the phone and called the Utah Chapter of the NAACP and told them how excited I was.

    After the revelation it was settled for me and most of my generation.

    Dan wrote: “Don’t take these challenges as affronts to your testimony in the church, the Book of Mormon, or in prophets…If you think you can get by in this life without having to finally confront hard questions, you’re going to be in for a big surprise at some point in your life.”

    I think your advice is worthwhile. I might add that I have been through a few life challenges and dealt with the hard questions of church doctrine and history. Along the way, I’ve learned that God is found in fasting and mighty prayer. On my blog, I’ve related the experience I had with the Savior that changed my life. If your interested in reading it, just click my name, the link is at the top of the page.

  17. thanks for sharing that Jared. That does illuminate things greatly. 🙂

  18. The scriptures are a funny thing. Because they say pretty much everything (contradictions included), you can use them to back up any argument.

  19. Thanks TL. I did a Google search and found the link with the LeGrand Richards interview. For those interested, see http://www.lds-mormon.com/legrand_richards.shtml

  20. Bishop Rick,

    I think you have a point. The scripture can be used to accomplish man’s purposes.

    They can also be used to accomplish God’s purposes as well. The key is acquiring the Holy Ghost.

  21. If you want to know more about the priesthood ban, the best book you can read is one by Keith N. Hamilton. It is called Last Laborer: Thoughts and Reflections of a Black Mormon. It is the most enlightening information I have read on the subject to date. I am in the process of reading Setting the Record Straight right now, and while it touches on a few things, Last Laborer seems like a better resource.

  22. I’ve been reviewing Newell Bringhurst’s book Saints, Slaves, and Blacks: The Changing Place of Black People Within Mormonism. It’s fantastic and gives a ton of information on the history surrounding the ban. I’ve reviewed parts of it here and here

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