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?