Using Scriptures to Debunk the Priesthood Ban

Alma Allred wrote a chapter in the book titled Black and Mormon.  On page 37, he states:

I don’t believe that LDS scripture allows for a restriction against blacks’ holding the priesthood.  Nor do I think that LDS theology can reasonably maintain that today’s blacks are descendants of Cain or that ancient intermarriage with Canaanites perpetuated any racial curse.  Too many scriptures collide with those ideas for them to be valid.

I found this perspective intriguing and  had to learn more.

LDS people have often believed that marriage to Canaanites (who were believed to be black) excluded one from the priesthood.  Yet Allred notes that intermarriage between blacks and white occurred routinely over centuries.  He notes intermarriage occurred in diverse cultures including Egypt, Portugal and the Greco-Roman world.  He notes a problem with LDS interpretations of scriptures.  From page 40,

Secondly, even though the terms Canaanite and Negro have been used interchangeably in the LDS Church, Canaanites weren’t black and they certainly weren’t African.  Biblically, Canaanites descended from Canaan, the fourth son of Ham.  African blacks are generally believed to be descendants of Cush, the first son of Ham.  This is important because the Canaanites were those who have been referred to as the “cursed” lineage while practically nothing is said about Ham’s other children.  It was Canaan who was cursed by Noah–not specifically Ham and not Ham’s other children.  According to Genesis, Noah cursed Canaan after Ham saw his father naked and drunk and ridiculed his father to his other brothers (Gen. 9:21-25).  Before this time, Ham had been righteous: “And Noah and his sons hearkened unto the Lord, and gave heed and they were called the sons of God.”  (Moses 8:13).  This scripture appears in the Pearl of Great Price, which also contains this statement:  “And thus Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord; for Noah was a just man, and perfect in his generation; and he walked with God, as did also his three sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth (Moses 8:27; italics mine).

These verses are particularly important because Mormon folklore contains the common belief that Ham wrongly married a descendant of Cain, bringing a curse upon himself and his descendants.  If such a commandment forbidding marriage into Cain’s lineage existed, how could Ham have contracted such a marriage and still have been considered righteous enough to get passage on the ark?   The answer has always been that Cain’s genes needed to be preserved; but this argument does not address the fact that Ham was righteous and “walked with God” after his marriage–a circumstance that, according to tradition, was impossible.

Although Canaan was not born until after the flood, there is a land of Canaan referred to in Moses 7:7 before the flood.  There is also a land of Cainan.  It is likely that both are variant spellings of the same word and refer to the same land.  This is because the Book of Moses was dictated by Joseph Smith and the two terms are homophones.  The decision to spell the antediluvian land “Canain” was entirely editorial.  Enoch came from the land of Cainan and called it “a land of righteousness unto this day” (Moses 6:42).  In Moses 7:4-8, Enoch sees a vision of the world “for the space of many generations.”  He describes how the people of Canaan (Cainan?) destroy the people of Shum.  After this, we are told the land is cursed with heat and that a blackness comes upon all the children of Canaan–it was not inherited from Cain.15

Allred continues further with this reasoning, and notes that on page 42,

Why curse Canaan for his father’s actions?….LDS theology affirms that children who repent are not punished for their ancestor’s faults.

He then quotes the 2nd article of faith, and notes some contradictions.  There are some spurious sources that claimed that Joseph Smith said that Cain could not hold the priesthood because he killed Abel.  However, if murder is the disqualifier, then all murderers should be disqualified.

If priesthood was withheld from Africans because their ancestor [Cain] was a murderer, why were King David’s descendants allowed the priesthood, for he too was a murderer?  Why are not white sons of murderers kept from the priesthood?

The Book of Abraham states that a descendant of Canaan discovered the land of Egypt and that all the Egyptians are descended from Canaan:

Now this king of Egypt was a descendant from the loins of Ham, and was a partaker of the blood of Canaanites by birth.

From this descent sprang all the Egyptians, and thus the blood of the Canaanites was preserved in the land.  (Abraham 1:21-22)

The problem that is immediately apparent is the fact that Abraham and Joseph each married an Egyptian woman.  One response offered to counter that damaging evidence has been that the Egyptians at the time of these marriages were Semitic Hyksos who had conquered Egypt and so were not really Canaanites.  This explanation contradicts Abraham 1:21-22.  It also contradicts history.  The Hyksos held power in Egypt for a maximum of only one hundred fifty years.  If they were Egyptians during Abraham’s lifetime, it is not possible for them to still have been in power in Joseph’s day.18

On page 43, Allred notes that Hugh Nibley said that Asenath

“was the daughter of the high priest of Heliopolis and hence of the pure line of Ham; she was also the wife of Joseph and the mother of our own vaunted ancestor Ephraim.”20 Ephraim, son of a Canaanite mother, acquired the birthright by blessing from his grandfather Jacob.  According to LDS theology, the impact of this blessing cannot be underestimated.  The birthright was the right to preside in the priesthood, as will be explained later.

Allred continues to note other discrepancies about Canaanites in the Bible, and notes that Canaanites sometimes married Israelites–the Canaanite harlot Rahab was saved in Jericho, and is an ancestor of Jesus.  (Matt 1:5)  Allred notes that Edomites (Canaanites) were allowed in the the congregation of Israel (Deut. 23:7-8)  Moses also married an Ethiopian woman.  From the Bible, Allred concludes on page 45,

Little doubt remains that intermarriage between Canaanites and Israelites destroyed any chance for a pure, non-Canaanite race among the chosen seed.  One third of the house of Judah is Canaanite with an unknown portion among the other tribes.  What then can we make of the curse pronounced by Noah and of Abraham’s comments about Pharaoh’s lineage could not have the ‘right of the priesthood’? (Abr. 1:27).  It may be that Mormons have simply misunderstood those passages of scripture.

Regarding Abraham 1:27, Allred says it was Abraham that had the right to preside over the priesthood, rather than Pharaoh.  He notes that Joseph and his son Ephraim had the right to preside even though they weren’t of the Tribe of Levi.  From page 45,

even though the priesthood did not remain exclusively with Ephraim, the right to preside did.  Moses presided over Israel even though he was of the tribe of Levi.  Joseph Smith, however, claimed to be the “lawful heir” because he was of the tribe of Ephraim (D&C 86:8-11).  Since this authority was passed from father to only one son, when Noah gave it to Shem, Ham could not be the heir.  Ham and Japheth, together with their descendants, did not have the right to administer the priesthood because it was given to Shem.  Esau lost the right to Jacob.  Reuben lost the right to Joseph.  Manasseh lost that right when Jacob conferred it to Ephraim.  Each man who lost the birthright did not lose the right to be ordained to the priesthood; [page 46] rather, he lost the right to preside as the presiding high priest in a patriarchal order.  The scripture does not saw that Pharaoh could not hold the priesthood; it says that he could not have the “right to the priesthood” (Abr. 1:27)  This right had been given to Shem, who in turn gave it to his successor in the patriarchal office.

Years after the right of the priesthood had been passed to Abraham, the Pharaohs were feigning claim to it from Noah.  They did not merely claim priesthood; they claimed the right to preside over the priesthood.  Pharaoh, the son of Egyptus, established a patriarchal government in Egpyt; but he was of the lineage by which he could not have the “right of the priesthood” or “the right of the firstborn,” which belonged to Shem and his posterity.  In response to Pharaoh’s claims, Abraham states, “But the records of the fathers, even the patriarchs, concerning the right of the priesthood, the Lord my God preserved in mine own hands: (Abr. 1:31; italics mine).  In other words, Abraham retained the right to preside over the priesthood.

So what do you think of Allred’s arguments?  Is there any scriptural basis in support of the priesthood ban?

6 comments on “Using Scriptures to Debunk the Priesthood Ban

  1. I don’t think that trying to interpret myth as literal history is helpful to anyone. Since I don’t believe that Noah and Ham lived, and since I believe more in the current scientific explanation of evolution and the origin of man, this all seems moot.

    We should acknowledge that the priesthood ban was the result of Brigham Young being a bigot.

  2. mcarp,

    How do you really feel?
    I have to agree with you though regarding Brigham Young, otherwise I would think Joseph Smith would have instituted the ban.

    Not sure I would go as far as Noah and Ham never existing, but I certainly don’t believe in a global flood or that Noah would curse an entire lineage because his son saw him naked. That kind of stuff is ridiculous.

  3. mcarp, I can understand your point of view, but I don’t think the majority of church members are going to quickly embrace science over religion. Some of them are more likely to embrace scripture, so I’m definitely open to arguing things scientifically and scripturally. I’d like to be able to convince by both methods.

    Brigham Young is so interesting to me. I don’t know if you saw my first (almost comprehensive) post on the priesthood ban. In that post, Brigham is quoted in the early 1840’s as saying,

    it is nothing to do with the blood, for of one blood has God made all flesh. We have one of the finest elder’s, an African in Lowell, MA.

    Then in 1846 he’s threatening to have the Lewis family killed for inter-racial marriage. Yes, I think he was a bigot, but earlier he was a bit progressive.

  4. MH,

    I have heard of Brigham’s early progressiveness too.
    What happened?
    He certainly changed his tune and didn’t look back afterwards.

  5. My opinion is that Joseph was extremely liberal for his day. Joseph was accepting of many radical ideas, such as giving blacks the priesthood. Brigham followed Joseph’s lead.

    However, when Joseph died, church members weren’t as liberal. Southern missions brought southern converts, and many of them were slaveholders, not nearly as liberal as Joseph on the issue of race. Some of these slaveholders became apostle, such as Charles Rich. If you click on the link above in comment #3, it seems that inter-racial marriages were the cause of the ban.

    According to Connell O’Donovan, “The catalyst for the priesthood and temple bans was a culmination of McCary’s marriage in 1846 to the daughter of Nauvoo stake president, Daniel Stanton, and then his sexual “sealings” to several other LDS women at Winter Quarters and other LDS camps in 1847, PLUS Enoch Lewis’ 1846 marriage to a white LDS woman, Mary Matilda Webster in Boston, and their having a mixed-race child in 1847. Brigham Young threatened to have the Lewis family killed in December 1847 for breaking the “law of God”. At that point, Young formulated the ban.”

    I think there’s more to it than just these inter-racial marriages, but certainly these were extremely troubling events to Brigham.

  6. Yay, I also believe the scriptures offer no basis for any lineal priesthood ban, and I’m delighted to see you publishing on this.

    Even Abraham 1:25-27, which people have used as evidence (ha!) for the racial ban, the discussion of Pharoah being “cursed” with regard to the priesthood, makes the case that he was establishing a patriarchal government, but trying to claim a priesthood-enhanced right-to-rule through a matrilineal connection to Noah. This, like all other cases of who-can-be-ordained in the scriptures, can be completely accounted for by pointing to patrilineal inheritance.

    mcarp, to some degree I think you’re missing the point. When you engage with someone who’s clinging to those horrible priesthood ban justifications, it’s really great that the scriptures won’t back up the justifications, quite the opposite.

    The last year Gospel Doctrine covered Old Testament/Pearl of Great Price, no reading was assigned in the Noah/Ham/Canaan passages. If the teacher followed the manual’s assignments, no opportunity was provided for people to argue about priesthood ban justifications. This ends up being more effective than assigning the material, because a teacher who stands up and deconstructs the ban myth will probably be challenged in class by someone clinging to the old racist ways. Instead, the ban justification myths are dying by attrition.

    Sure, I’d prefer one of our General Authorities to stand up in Conference and declare that there never was such a thing as a lineal priesthood curse. Failing that, this seems pretty effective.

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