Black people and early Mormonism
Early Mormonism had a range of doctrines related to race in regard to black people of African descent. References to black people, their social condition during the 19th century, and their spiritual place in Western Christianity as well as Mormon scriptures were complicated.
From the beginning, black people have been members of Mormon congregations, though there were varying degrees and forms of discrimination against blacks. When the Mormons migrated to Missouri they encountered the pro-slavery sentiments of their neighbors. Joseph Smith, Jr. upheld the laws regarding slaves and slaveholders, and affirmed the curse of Ham as placing his descendants into slavery, "to the shame and confusion of all who have cried out against the South," but remained abolitionist in his actions and doctrines. After the Mormons were expelled from Missouri, Smith took an increasingly strong anti-slavery position, and a few black men were ordained to the LDS priesthood.
New York era (1820s and early 1830s)
The first reference in Latter Day Saint writings describing dark skin as a curse and mark from God refers to Lamanites. The Book of Mormon, published in the late 1820s, states the following about a group of people who rebelled against God:
And [God] had caused the cursing to come upon them, yea, even a sore cursing, because of their iniquity. For behold, they had hardened their hearts against him, that they had become like unto a flint; wherefore, as they were white, and exceedingly fair and delightsome, that they might not be enticing unto my people, the Lord God did cause a skin of blackness to come upon them. And thus saith the Lord God; I will cause that they shall be loathsome unto thy people, save they shall repent of their iniquities." (2 Nephi 5:21)
The Lamanite nation was the original nation to disobey the teachings of the prophets in the Book of Mormon, and the Nephites were the original people to follow said teachings, though the Nephites rebel and repent throughout the book. The curse was also placed on the Lamanites' descendants "because of the traditions of their fathers", (Alma 17:15) which would ultimately "be taken from [them] and be answered upon the heads of [their] parents" (2 Nephi 4:6)
The mark of blackness was placed upon the Lamanites so the Nephites "might not mix and believe in incorrect traditions which would prove their destruction" (Alma 3:7-9). The Book of Mormon records the Lord as forbidding miscegenation between Lamanites and Nephites (2 Nephi 5:23) and saying they were to stay "separated from thee and thy seed [Nephites], from this time henceforth and forever, except they repent of their wickedness and turn to me that I may have mercy upon them" (Alma 3:14).
However,states: "[The Lord] inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come, black and white, bond and free, male and female...and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile." Although the Lamanites are labelled as wicked, they actually became more righteous than the Nephites as time passed ( ).
Throughout the Book of Mormon narrative, several groups of Lamanites did repent and lose the curse. The Anti-Nephi-Lehies or Ammonites "open[ed] a correspondence with them [Nephites], and the curse of God did no more follow them" (Alma 23:18). There is no reference to their skin color being changed. Later, the Book of Mormon records that an additional group of Lamanites converted and that "their curse was taken from them, and their skin became white like unto the Nephites… and they were numbered among the Nephites, and were called Nephites" (3 Nephi 2:15-16).
The curse was also put on others who rebelled. One group of Nephites, called Amlicites "had come out in open rebellion against God; therefore it was expedient that the curse should fall upon them". (Alma 3:18) The Amlicites then put a mark upon themselves. At this point, the author stops the narrative to say "I would that ye should see that they brought upon themselves the curse; and even so doth every man that is cursed bring upon himself his own condemnation."(Alma 3:19) Eventually, the Lamanites "had become, the more part of them, a righteous people, insomuch that their righteousness did exceed that of the Nephites, because of their firmness and their steadiness in the faith." ( )
The Book of Mormon did not countenance any form of curse-based discrimination. It stated that the Lord "denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile". (2 Nephi 26:33). In fact, prejudice against people of dark skin was condemned more than once, here being one example:
O my brethren, I fear that unless ye shall repent of your sins that their skins will be whiter than yours, when ye shall be brought with them before the throne of God. Wherefore, a commandment I give unto you, which is the word of God, that ye revile no more against them because of the darkness of their skins; neither shall ye revile against them because of their filthiness..." (Jacob 3:8-9).
Mormon scholar and apologist Hugh Nibley discussed the Book of Mormon's depiction of Blacks in his writings:
“But if we are to take the Book of Mormon to task for its ethnological teachings, it might be well at first to learn what those teachings are. They turn out on investigation to be surprisingly complicated. There is no mention in the Book of Mormon of red skins versus white; indeed, there is no mention of red skin at all. What we find is a more or less steady process over long periods of time of mixing and separating of many closely related but not identical ethnic groups." (Collected Works of Hugh Nibley, Vol.7, Ch.8, pp. 215–218)
Missouri era (early 1830s to 1838)
In 1833, Joseph Smith recorded the following as verse 79 and 80 of what would become section 101 of the Doctrine and Covenants (D&C).
79 Therefore, it is not right that any man should be in bondage one to another.
80 And for this purpose have I established the Constitution of this land, by the hands of wise men whom I raised up unto this very purpose, and redeemed the land by the shedding of blood.
In the summer of 1833, W. W. Phelps published an article in the church's newspaper, seeming to invite free black people into the state to become Mormons, and reflecting "in connection with the wonderful events of this age, much is doing towards abolishing slavery, and colonizing the blacks, in Africa." Outrage followed Phelps' comments, (Roberts  1965, p. 378.) and he was forced to reverse his position, which he claimed was "misunderstood", but this reversal did not end the controversy, and the Mormons were violently expelled from Jackson County, Missouri five months later in December 1833.
Coincidentally, on December 16, 1833, Joseph Smith, Jr. dictated a passage in the Doctrine and Covenants stating that "it is not right that any man should be in bondage to another." (D&C Section 101:79).
In 1835, the Church issued an official statement indicating that because the United States government allowed slavery, the Church would not "interfere with bond-servants, neither preach the gospel to, nor baptize them contrary to the will and wish of their masters, nor meddle with or influence them in the least to cause them to be dissatisfied with their situations in this life, thereby jeopardizing the lives of men." (D&C Section 134:12).
On February 6, 1835, an assistant president of the church, W. W. Phelps, wrote a letter theorizing that the curse of Cain survived the deluge by passing through the wife of Ham, son of Noah, who according to Phelps was a descendant of Cain. (Messenger and Advocate 1:82) In addition, Phelps introduced the idea of a third curse upon Ham himself for "marrying a black wife". (Messenger and Advocate 1:82) This black wife, according to Phelps, was not just a descendant of Cain, but one of the pre-flood "people of Canaan", not directly related to the Biblical Canaanites after the flood.
In 1836, the rules established by the church for governing assemblies in the Kirtland Temple included attendees who were “bond or free, black or white.” (History of the Church, Vol. 2, Ch. 26, p. 368)
Writing for the Messenger and Advocate newspaper on the subject of slavery, Joseph Smith states:
"After having expressed myself so freely upon this subject, I do not doubt but those who have been forward in raising their voice against the South, will cry out against me as being uncharitable, unfeeling and unkind-wholly unacquainted with the gospel of Christ.
It is my privilege then, to name certain passages from the bible, and examine the teachings of the ancients upon this nature, as the fact is incontrovertible, that the first mention we have of slavery is found in the holy bible, pronounced by a man who was perfect in his generation and walked with God.
And so far from that prediction's being averse from the mind of God it remains as a lasting monument of the decree of Jehovah, to the shame and confusion of all who have cried out against the South, in consequence of their holding the sons of Ham in servitude!"Trace the history of the world from this notable event down to this day, and you will find the fulfillment of this singular prophecy. What could have been the design of the Almighty in this wonderful occurrence is not for me to say; but I can say that the curse is not yet taken off the sons of Canaan, neither will be until it is affected by as great power as caused it to come; and the people who interfere the least with the decrees and purposes of God in this matter, will come under the least condemnation before him; and those who are determined to pursue a course which shows an opposition and a feverish restlessness against the designs of the Lord, will learn, when perhaps it is too late for their own good, that God can do his own work without the aid of those who are not dictate by his counsel." (Joseph Smith Jr., Messenger and Advocate Vol. II, No. 7, April 1836, p. 290; History of the Church, Vol. 2, Ch. 30, pp. 436–40.)
"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. God shall enlarge Japheth, and he shall dwell in the tents of Shem and Canaan shall be his servant." —Genesis 9:25-27
In April 1836, Smith said:
Thinking, perhaps, that the sound might go out, that "an abolitionist" had held forth several times to this community, and that the public feeling was not aroused to create mobs or disturbances, leaving the impression that all he said was concurred in, and received as gospel and the word of salvation. I am happy to say, that no violence or breach of the public peace was attempted, so far from this, that all except a very few, attended to their own avocations and left the gentleman to hold forth his own arguments to nearly naked walls. (Messenger and Advocate Volume 2, Number 7, pg. 290)
In 1836, Warren Parrish (Smith's secretary) wrote regarding the sentiments of the people of Kirtland:
Not long since a gentleman of the Presbyterian faith came to this town (Kirtland) and proposed to lecture upon the abolition question. Knowing that there was a large branch of the church of Latter Day Saints in this place, who, as a people, are liberal in our sentiments; he no doubt anticipated great success in establishing his doctrine among us. But in this he was mistaken. The doctrine of Christ and the systems of men are at issue and consequently will not harmonize together. (Messenger and Advocate Volume 2, Number 7)
The Church never denied membership based on race (although slaves had to have their master's permission to be baptized), and several black men were ordained to the priesthood during Joseph Smith's lifetime. The first known black Latter-day Saint was "Black Pete", who joined the Church in Kirtland, Ohio, and there is some evidence that he held the LDS priesthood. Other African Americans, including Elijah Abel in 1832, Joseph T. Ball in 1835 or 1836 (who also presided over the Boston Branch from 1844–1845), and Walker Lewis in 1843 (and probably his son, Enoch Lovejoy Lewis), were ordained to the priesthood during Smith's lifetime. William McCary was ordained in Nauvoo in 1846 by Apostle Orson Hyde. Two of the descendants of Elijah Abel were also ordained Elders, and two other black men, Samuel Chambers and Edward Leggroan, were ordained Deacons.
Early black members in the Church were admitted to the temple in Kirtland, Ohio, where Elijah Abel received the ritual of washing and anointing (see Journal of Zebedee Coltrin[page needed]). Abel also participated in at least two baptisms for the dead in Nauvoo, Illinois, as did Elder Joseph T. Ball.
Nauvoo era prior to Smith's death (1838 to 1844)
In 1838, Joseph Smith had the following conversation:
"Elder Hyde inquired about the situation of the negro. I replied, they came into the world slaves mentally and physically. Change their situation with the whites, and they would be like them. They have souls, and are subjects of salvation. Go into Cincinnati or any city, and find an educated negro, who rides in his carriage, and you will see a man who has risen by the powers of his own mind to his exalted state of respectability. The slaves in Washington are more refined than many in high places, and the black boys will take the shine off many of those they brush and wait on. Elder Hyde remarked, "Put them on the level, and they will rise above me." I replied, if I raised you to be my equal, and then attempted to oppress you, would you not be indignant? […] Had I anything to do with the negro, I would confine them by strict law to their own species, and put them on a national equalization." (History of the Church, Volume 5, p. 216)
It should be noted here that in 1838 "species" simply meant type or kind. The biological concept of species (BCS) would not be articulated for 99 years or 1937 by Mayr and Dobzhansky.
In 1838, Joseph Smith answered the following question while en route from Kirtland to Missouri, as follows: "Are the Mormons abolitionists? No ... we do not believe in setting the Negroes free." (Smith 1977, p. 120)
By 1839 there were about a dozen black members in the Church. Nauvoo, Illinois was reported to have 22 black members, including free and slave, between 1839-1843 (Late Persecution of the Church of Latter-day Saints, 1840).
"In the evening debated with John C. Bennett and others to show that the Indians have greater cause to complain of the treatment of the whites, than the negroes or sons of Cain" (History of the Church 4:501.)
Beginning in 1842, Smith made known his increasingly strong anti-slavery position. In March 1842, he began studying some abolitionist literature, and stated, "it makes my blood boil within me to reflect upon the injustice, cruelty, and oppression of the rulers of the people. When will these things cease to be, and the Constitution and the laws again bear rule?" (History of the Church, 4:544).
On February 7, 1844, Joseph Smith wrote his views as a candidate for president of the United States. The anti-slavery plank of his platform called for a gradual end to slavery by the year 1850 . His plan called for the government to buy the freedom of slaves using money from the sale of public lands.
“My cogitations, like Daniel's have for a long time troubled me, when I viewed the condition of men throughout the world, and more especially in this boasted realm, where the Declaration of Independence ‘holds these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness;’ but at the same time some two or three millions of people are held as slaves for life, because the spirit in them is covered with a darker skin than ours.” (History of the Church, Vol.6, Ch.8, p.197 - p.198)
Notable Black members of the early LDS movement
Although Joseph Smith is not known to have made any statements regarding blacks and the priesthood, he was aware of the ordination of at least one black man to the office of elder. Elijah Abel was ordained on March 3, 1836 by Zebedee Coltrin. Six months later, he was ordained to the office of seventy and was called to serve in the Third Quorum of the Seventy. Abel served his first mission for the church to New York and Upper Canada. In 1836, he moved from Kirtland to Nauvoo, Illinois, where he participated in the temple ordinance of baptism for the dead. In 1843, a traveling high council visited Cincinnati, where Abel lived, but refused to recognize Abel for the sake of public appearance and called him to his second mission to the "colored population" of Cincinnati.
Abel joined the other Latter-day Saints in Utah Territory in 1853. By then, Brigham Young had formalized church's policies against black people. However, no attempt was made to remove Abel's priesthood or drop him from the Third Quorum of the Seventy. He remained active in the Quorum until his death.
Born in 1829 Green Flake, the slave of James Madison Flake, a convert to the LDS Church, was baptized at the age of 16 on April 7, 1844 by John Brown. He accompanied the Flake family to Nauvoo, Illinois. Green remained a slave but was a faithful member of the church throughout his life. From family diaries and the memory of a grandson, it is believed that it was Green who drove the carriage and team that brought President Brigham Young into the Salt Lake Valley.
Brigham Young freed Flake in 1854. Flake died a faithful member of the Church.
Walker Lewis was another free black man who held the Mormon priesthood prior to the death of Joseph Smith. A prominent radical abolitionist, Episcopalian, and Most Worshipful Grand Master of Freemasonry from Lowell and Boston, Massachusetts, Lewis became a Latter Day Saint about 1842. In the summer of 1843, he was ordained an elder in the Melchizedek priesthood. His son, Enoch Lovejoy Lewis, also joined the Latter Day Saints about the same time, and Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whittier heard young Enoch preaching in Lowell just after the death of Joseph Smith in July or August 1844. It has been speculated[by whom?] that Enoch led Young to instigate the ban against black men holding Mormon priesthood when Enoch L. Lewis married a white Mormon woman, Mary Matilda Webster, in Cambridge, Massachusetts on September 18, 1846. On December 3, 1847, Young told the Quorom of the Twelve at Winter Quarters that "if they [Enoch and Matilda] were far away from the Gentiles they wod. [would] all be killed - when they mingle seed it is death to all." (Quorum of the Twelve Minutes, December 3, 1847, pp. 6–7, LDS Archives.)
- 1978 Revelation on Priesthood
- Black Mormons
- Black people in Mormon doctrine
- Genesis Group
- Mormonism and Pacific Islanders
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- LDS Church. "Official Declaration 2". lds.org. Intellectual Reserve. Retrieved 4 October 2013.
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- Bush & Mauss 1984, p. 55
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- Bush & Mauss 1984, p. 130
- Green Flake, BlackLDS.org
- "The Negro and the Priesthood". Liahona, the Elders' Journal 5: 1164–1167. 1908.
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- BlackLDS.org: A Web Site Dedicated to Black Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
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- Essay on Latter-day Saint views on OD-2, by Julie M. Smith at timesandseasons.org
- Current Strangite position statement, published by John Hajicek at strangite.org