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Curse and mark of Cain

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Cain, 1896, by Henri Vidal, Jardin des Tuileries, Paris

The curse of Cain and the mark of Cain are phrases that originated in the story of Cain and Abel in the Book of Genesis. In the stories, if someone harmed Cain, the damage would come back sevenfold. Some interpretations view this as a physical mark, whereas other interpretations see the "mark" as a sign, and not as a physical mark on Cain himself. The King James Version of the Bible reads "set a mark upon Cain".


There is no clear consensus as to what Cain's mark was.[1] The word translated as "mark" in Genesis 4:15 is א֔וֹת‎ ('ōṯ), which could mean a sign, omen, warning, remembrance, motion, gesture, agreement, miracle, wonder, or, most commonly, a letter. In the Torah, the same word is used to describe the stars as signs or omens (Genesis 1:14), the rainbow as the sign of God's promise never again to destroy his creation with a flood (Genesis 9:12), circumcision as a token of God's covenant with Abraham (Genesis 17:11), and the miracles performed by Moses before the Pharaoh (Exodus 4:8,9,17,28; 7:3; 8:23; 10:1,2).

Curse of Cain[edit]

Glasgow Botanic Gardens. Kibble Palace. Edwin Roscoe MullinsCain or My Punishment is Greater than I can Bear (Genesis 4:13), about 1899.
Print by Wilhelm Groß of Cain with mark of a Chi Rho (1956/57).

The narrative of the curse of Cain is found in the text of Genesis 4:11–16. The curse was the result of Cain murdering his brother, Abel, and lying about the murder to God.[2] When Cain spilled his brother's blood, the earth became cursed as soon as the blood hit the ground. In a sense, the earth was left "drinking Abel's blood".[3] Genesis 4:12 gives a two-part sentencing for Cain's curse. The first concerns the earth that was cursed by Abel's blood.[4] Should Cain attempt to farm the land, the earth would not yield produce for him. This may imply why he went on to build cities,[5] namely the City of Enoch. The second part of the curse marks Cain as a fugitive (Hebrew: נע, romanizednā‘) and a wanderer (Hebrew: נד, romanizednāḏ). The combination making up this Hebrew phrase נע ונד‎, "fugitive and wanderer," is unique in the Hebrew Bible. Modern interpretations of the Hebrew verse 12 suggest that Cain went on to live a nomadic lifestyle and that he was also excluded from the family unit.[6] In the Septuagint, the emphasis on Cain's curse is dramatically increased by the combination of the Greek participles στένων καὶ τρέμων (stenōn kai tremōn, "groaning and shaking upon the earth").[7] Syriac Christianity[8] interprets the Greek version to mean that Cain experienced a real physical affliction[9] that would enable others to know who he was when they saw him. Philo interprets the Greek verse 12 as an allegory for Cain's fear of being soulless. The Samaritan Pentateuch and the Targums translate the same verse to mean that Cain feared being "an exile and an unstable man".[10]

Mark of Cain[edit]

The Hebrew word for mark (’ōṯ, אות‎) could mean a sign, an omen, a warning, or a remembrance.[11] The mark of Cain is God's promise to offer Cain divine protection from premature death with the stated purpose of preventing anyone from killing him. It is not known what the mark was, but it is assumed that the mark was visible.[12] Some have speculated that the mark was a Hebrew or Sumerian letter placed on either the face or the arm.[13] The Septuagint translates the mark as a "sign". Thus, it is speculated that the mark served as a sign to others not to commit the same offense.[14][15]


Abba Arika ("Rav") said that God gave Cain a dog, making him an example for murderers. Abba Jose ben Hanan said that God made a horn grow out of Cain. R. Hanin said that God made Cain an example to penitents (Gen. Rab. 22:12).[14]

Rashi (1:4) comments on Genesis 4:15 by saying that the mark was one of the Hebrew letters of the Tetragrammaton: "He engraved a letter of His [God's] Name onto his [Cain's] forehead."[16] The same statement about the Tetragrammaton was expressed by Targum Jonathan, Pirqé Rabbi Eliezer 21, and Zohar I.36b.[17]

In Kabbalah, the Zohar states that the mark of Cain was one of the twenty-two Hebrew letters of the Torah, although the Zohar's native Aramaic does not actually tell us which of the letters it was. Some commentators, such as Rabbi Michael Berg in his English commentary on the Zohar, suggest that the mark of Cain was the letter vav (ו‎).[18]


Sometime before 1824, the Catholic mystic Anne Catherine Emmerich described a vision that included: "Cain's posterity gradually became colored. Ham's children also were browner than those of Shem. The nobler races were always of a lighter color. They who were distinguished by a particular mark engendered children of the same stamp; and as corruption increased, the mark also increased until at last it covered the whole body, and people became darker and darker. But yet in the beginning there were no people perfectly black; they became so only by degrees."[19][20]

According to author Ruth Mellinkoff, commentators' interpretations of the nature of the "mark" depended on their views regarding the status of Cain, as either being given additional time to repent or as being further shamed.[21]

American Protestant racial beliefs on the mark of Cain[edit]

At some point after the start of the slave trade in the United States, many[citation needed] Protestant denominations began teaching the belief that the mark of Cain was a dark skin tone in an attempt to justify their actions, although early descriptions of Romani as "descendants of Cain" written by Franciscan friar Symon Semeonis suggest that this belief had existed for some time. Protestant preachers wrote exegetical analyses of the curse, with the assumption that it was dark skin.[22]

Baptist segregationists[edit]

The split between the Northern and Southern Baptist organizations arose over doctrinal issues pertaining to slavery and the education of slaves. At the time of the split, the Southern Baptist group used the curse of Cain as a justification for slavery. Some 19th- and 20th-century Baptist ministers in the Southern United States taught the belief that there were two separate heavens; one heaven was for Black people, and another heaven was for White people.[23] Southern Baptists either taught or practiced various forms of racial segregation well into the mid-20th century, though members of all races were accepted at worship services.[a] In 1995, the Southern Baptist Convention officially denounced racism and it also apologized for its past defense of slavery.[25]

The curse of Cain was used to support a ban on ordaining Black people to most Protestant clergies until the 1960s in both the United States and Europe.[citation needed] However, the majority of Christian churches in the world, including the Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodox churches, Anglican churches, and Oriental Orthodox churches, did not recognize the racist interpretations and did not participate in the religious movement to exclude Black people from ministry.

One exception was that certain Catholic dioceses in the Southern United States independently adopted a policy of not permitting Black people to oversee, administer sacraments to, nor accept confessions from White parishioners.[citation needed] The justification for this policy was not excused by the espousal of a "curse of Cain" doctrine, instead, it was justified by the widely held perception among southern clergy and congregations that it would offend too many White parishioners if slaves or their descendants had any authority over White people – the race of their former masters and still their presumptive superiors.[citation needed] This was neither approved by a Pope nor derived from any papal teaching.[24][failed verification]

Curse of Ham[edit]

The Curse of Cain was often conflated with the Curse of Ham. According to the Bible, Ham discovered his father Noah drunk and naked in his tent, but instead of honoring his father by covering his nakedness, he ran and told his brothers about it. Because of this, Noah cursed Ham's son, Canaan, by saying that he was to be "a servant of servants" (Genesis 9:20–27). One interpretation of this passage states that Ham married a descendant of Cain. While there is no indication in the Bible of Ham's wife descending from Cain, this interpretation was used to justify slavery and it was particularly popular in North America during the Atlantic slave trade due to interpretations identifying Ham as the progenitor of the people of Africa.[26][27]

Latter-day Saint movement[edit]

Mormonism began during the height of Protestant acceptance of the curse of Cain doctrine in North America, as well as the even more popular curse of Ham doctrine. Like many North Americans,[26][27] Mormons of the 19th century commonly assumed that Black Africans had Cain's "mark" of black skin,[28][29]: 42  and Ham's curse to be servants of servants.[30] Brigham Young both taught that Black people were cursed descendants of Cain, and used it to justify slavery.[31]: 125–126 [32][33] In the Pearl of Great Price, considered scripture to most Mormons, Enoch talks about shunning the descendants of Cain and that they had black skin:[34] "And Enoch also beheld the residue of the people which were the sons of Adam; and they were a mixture of all the seed of Adam save it was the seed of Cain, for the seed of Cain were black, and had not place among them." (Moses 7:22) Church president Brigham Young stated, "What is the mark? You will see it on the countenance of every African you ever did see...."[29]: 42 [35]

As related by Abraham O. Smoot after his death, apostle David W. Patten said he encountered a Black man in Paris, Tennessee, who said that he was Cain. The account states that Cain had earnestly sought death but was denied it, and that his mission was to destroy the souls of men.[36][37]: 85  The recollection of Patten's story is quoted in apostle Spencer W. Kimball's The Miracle of Forgiveness.

Although not explicitly stated in Latter-day Saint scripture, at least one publication of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church) still teaches that Ham's wife was a descendant of Cain. The "Guide to the Scriptures," published as an explanatory companion to the scriptures, states "Ham's wife, Egyptus, was a descendant of Cain; the sons of their daughter Egyptus settled in Egypt".[38]

Temple and priesthood ban[edit]

There is evidence which proves that Joseph Smith did not consider the ban on Black men to the priesthood to be relevant in modern times, since he himself (and other church leaders close to him) ordained Black men into it,[39] notably Elijah Abel and Walker Lewis.

After the death of Joseph Smith, Brigham Young (the second President of the Church) accepted the idea that people of African ancestry were generally under the curse of Cain, and in 1852, he stated that people of Black African descent were not eligible to hold the church's priesthood.[40] Young taught that in the war in heaven, both Cain and Abel were leaders. The spirits of Black people fought under Cain and were assigned to be Cain's descendants. Those that fought under Abel were assigned to be Abel's descendants. Cain hoped that by killing his brother, the spirits that were under him would have an advantage over the spirits under Abel. However, God cursed Cain and his descendants not to have the priesthood until all of Abel's descendants had the priesthood. The spirits of Black people understood this and stood with Cain and accepted the punishment.[41][42]

The ban on the priesthood affected Black members differently than it did in other churches because the LDS Church has a lay priesthood in which virtually all worthy male members become priesthood holders.

Several of Young's successors defended the priesthood ban as being a result of the curse of Cain, though some disagreed. Sterling M. McMurrin reported that, in 1954, church president David O. McKay said: "There is not now, and there never has been a doctrine in this church that the negroes are under a divine curse. There is no doctrine in the church of any kind pertaining to the negro. We believe that we have a scriptural precedent for withholding the priesthood from the negro. It is a practice, not a doctrine, and the practice someday will be changed. And that's all there is to it."[43]

In 1978, LDS Church president Spencer W. Kimball reported receiving a revelation from God allowing all worthy male members of the church to receive the priesthood without regard to race or color.[44][45] Although the church had previously been criticized for its policy during the civil rights movement, the change seems to have been prompted by problems facing mixed-race converts in Brazil.[46]

Many Black church members think that giving an apology would be a "detriment" to church work and a catalyst for further racial misunderstanding. African-American church member Bryan E. Powell says: "There is no pleasure in old news, and this news is old." Gladys Newkirk agrees, stating: "I've never experienced any problems in this church. I don't need an apology [...] We're the result of an apology."[47] Many Black Mormons say that they are willing to look beyond the former teachings and cleave to the doctrines of the church, in part because of its powerful, detailed teachings on life after death.[48]

The LDS Church has issued an official statement about past practices and theories regarding skin color, stating: "[t]oday, the Church disavows the theories advanced in the past that black skin is a sign of divine disfavor or curse, [...] Church leaders today unequivocally condemn all racism, past and present, in any form."[49]

Civil rights[edit]

When Utah was considering the legalization of slavery, Brigham Young told the Utah Territorial Legislature that the curse of Cain required slavery. He argued that until all of the descendants of Abel have access to the priesthood, all of the descendants of Cain should remain in servitude.[29]: 28  He argued that because they did not have the right to govern the affairs of the Church due to the priesthood ban, they also should not have the right to govern the affairs of the state, including the right to vote.[29]: 47  He warned that if they made the children of Cain equal to them, they would be cursed.[29]: 48  He also argued that if someone married a descendant of Cain, that they would also have the same curse.[29]: 48  The church has since repudiated all of these teachings.[49]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Slaves were accepted as members in the same manner as whites were. After a slave expressed his or her desire to join a church, he or she was required to describe his or her religious experience. If the congregation was favorably impressed by one's testimony, the applicant was accepted into the fellowship and he or she was baptized. When black church members moved from one community to another, they were given letters of dismissal which they might place with another Baptist church.
    Black church members worshiped in the sanctuary with whites, participated in the service of Holy Communion, and contributed to help support the various programs of the denomination. Still blacks and females in antebellum Baptist churches held a membership status subordinate to that of adult white males, since that group alone determined denominational policies and procedures.[24]



  1. ^ Thursby, Jacqueline S. (2013). "A Slave Tale: Closing an Anathema". NAAAS Conference Proceedings. National Association of African American Studies. ProQuest 1498460617.
  2. ^ Byron 2011, p. 93.
  3. ^ Byron 2011, p. 95: Genesis 4:11
  4. ^ Byron 2011, p. 97: Kugel, 163
  5. ^ Byron 2011, p. 97: Wenham, 108
  6. ^ Byron 2011, p. 97.
  7. ^ Byron 2011, p. 98: Brayford, 254
  8. ^ Byron 2011, p. 100.
  9. ^ Byron 2011, p. 98: See footnote 14
  10. ^ Byron 2011, pp. 98–100.
  11. ^ BDB, Francis Brown; Samuel Rolles Driver; Charles Augustus Briggs (1996). The Brown Driver Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon: with an appendix containing the Biblical Aramaic; coded with the numbering system from "Strong's Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible" (7. print. 1997 ed.). Peabody: Hendrickson. p. 16f. ISBN 9781565632066.
  12. ^ Byron 2011, p. 119: Mellinkoff, 1942, p.210; Moberley, 2007, p.11-28
  13. ^ Byron 2011, p. 120: (Tg. Ps.-J. Gen 4:15, Pirqe R. El. 21)
  14. ^ a b Byron 2011, p. 120: Gen. Rab. 22:12
  15. ^ Byron 2011, p. 106.
  16. ^ "Genesis – Chapter 4 (Parshah Bereishit) – Tanakh Online – Torah – Bible". Chabad.org. Retrieved 2012-09-21.
  17. ^ Annarita Magri, Caino, lo gnosticismo e i testimonia nel quadro dell’esegesi del II sec. I Perati e i Cainiti, January 2007
  18. ^ "Bereshit A: Chapter 48". Zohar.com. Retrieved 2020-09-01.]
  19. ^ "The Old Testament - Part 2". The complete visions of Anne Catherine Emmerich. 2019-01-04. Retrieved 2024-05-16.
  20. ^ Goldenberg, David M. (2017-05-22). Black and Slave: The Origins and History of the Curse of Ham. Walter de Gruyter GmbH & Co KG. ISBN 978-3-11-052167-2.
  21. ^ Mellinkoff, Ruth (1981). The Mark of Cain. University of California Press. p. 13. ISBN 9780520906372.
  22. ^ Priest, Josiah Slavery as it Relates to the Negro or African Race (1843)
  23. ^ "Land of the Till Murder". Ebony. April 1956. Archived from the original on 2005-03-11.
  24. ^ a b Miller, Randall M.; Smith, John David (1988). Dictionary of Afro-American Slavery. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press. p. 78. ISBN 0-313-23814-6 – via Internet Archive (archive.org).
  25. ^ Kunnerth, Jeff (21 June 1995). "Baptists renounce racist past". Orlando Sentinel. Orlando, FL. Archived from the original on 2 September 2014. Retrieved 27 April 2012.
  26. ^ a b Benjamin Braude, "The Sons of Noah and the Construction of Ethnic and Geographical Identities in the Medieval and Early Modern Periods", William and Mary Quarterly LIV (January 1997): 103–42. See also William McKee Evans, "From the Land of Canaan to the Land of Guinea: The Strange Odyssey of the Sons of Ham", American Historical Review 85 (February 1980): 15–43. JSTOR 1853423.
  27. ^ a b John N. Swift and Gigen Mammoser, "Out of the Realm of Superstition: Chesnutt's 'Dave's Neckliss' and the Curse of Ham", American Literary Realism, vol. 42 no. 1, Fall 2009, 3
  28. ^ Stuart Bingham, Ryan (July 2015). "Curses and Marks: Racial Dispensations and Dispensations of Race in Joseph Smith's Bible Revision and the Book of Abraham". Journal of Mormon History. 41 (3). University of Illinois Press: 27. doi:10.5406/jmormhist.41.3.22. JSTOR 10.5406/jmormhist.41.3.22 – via JSTOR.
  29. ^ a b c d e f Collier, Fred C. (1987). The Teachings of President Brigham Young Vol. 3 1852–1854. Salt Lake City: Collier Publishing. ISBN 9780934964012 – via Google Books.
  30. ^ Smith, Joseph (1836). Latter Day Saints' Messenger and Advocate/Volume 2/Number 7/Letter to Oliver Cowdery from Joseph Smith, Jr. (Apr. 1836) . p. 290 – via Wikisource.
  31. ^ Reeve, W. Paul (2015). Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness. New York, New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-975407-6 – via Google Books.
  32. ^ Taylor, Quintard (17 May 1999). In Search of the Racial Frontier: African Americans in the American West 1528-1990. New York City: W. W. Norton & Company. p. 73. ISBN 9780393318890 – via Google Books. Brigham Young spoke for many Saints in 1863 when he assessed the Civil War raging in the East: 'One portion of the country wish [sic] to raise their ... black slaves and the other wish [sic] to free them, and apparently to almost worship them.... Who cares? ... Ham will continue to be the servant of servants, as the Lord has decreed, until the curse is removed.'
  33. ^ Harris, Matthew L.; Bringhurst, Newell G. (2015). The Mormon Church and Blacks: A Documentary History. Chicago: University of Illinois Press. p. 22. ISBN 978-0-252-08121-7 – via Google Books.
  34. ^ Kidd, Colin (2006). The Forging of Races: Race and Scripture in the Protestant Atlantic World, 1600–2000. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0521793247 – via Google Books.
  35. ^ Watt, George D. "Brigham Young, 1852 February 5" (5 Feb 1852). Historian's Office reports of speeches, 1845–1885, ID: CR 100 317, p. 2. Salt Lake City: LDS Church History Library.
  36. ^ Wilson 1904
  37. ^ Whiting 2003
  38. ^ "Guide to the Scriptures – Ham".
  39. ^ "Black History Timeline". BlackLDS.org. Retrieved 17 January 2013.
  40. ^ Wilford Woodruff, Diary of Wilford Woodruff, January 16, 1852. "[A]ny man having one drop of the seed of [Cain] … in him cannot hold the priesthood and if no other Prophet ever spake it before I will say it now in the name of Jesus Christ".
  41. ^ Bush, Lester E. Jr.; Mauss, Armand L., eds. (1984). Neither White Nor Black: Mormon Scholars Confront the Race Issue in a Universal Church. Salt Lake City, Utah: Signature Books. ISBN 0-941214-22-2. Cain, in murdering Abel, had "deprived his brother of the privilege of pursuing his journey through life, and of extending his kingdom by multiplying upon the earth." Cain had reportedly hoped thereby to gain an advantage over Abel—the number of one's posterity somehow being important in the overall scheme of things. Brigham Young further explained that those who were to have been Abel's descendants had already been assigned to his lineage, and if they were ever to come "into the world in the regular way, they would have to come through him." In order that Cain's posterity not gain an advantage the Lord denied them the priesthood until such time as "the class of spirits presided over by Abel should have the privilege of coming into the world." Those spirits formerly under Cain's leadership were reportedly aware of the implications of this decision, yet "still looked up to him, and rather than forsake him they were willing to bear his burdens and share the penalty imposed upon him."
  42. ^ "Mormonism's Negro Doctrine: An Historical Overview". Dialogue. University of Illinois Press: 253. 2001.
  43. ^ Sterling M. McMurrin affidavit, March 6, 1979. See David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism by Greg Prince and William Robert Wright, p.[page needed]. Quoted by Genesis Group Archived 2011-07-13 at the Wayback Machine
  44. ^ "Spencer W. Kimball – Significant Events". churchofjesuschrist.org. Archived from the original on 2004-08-28. Retrieved 2012-09-21.
  45. ^ Official Declaration 2 (LDS standard works); see also: Official Declaration 2
  46. ^ Bushman, Richard (2008). Mormonism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press. pp. 111–12. ISBN 978-0-19-531030-6 – via Google Books.
  47. ^ Broadway, Bill (1998-05-30). "Black Mormons Resist Apology Talk". The Washington Post. Washington D.C.
  48. ^ Ramirez, Margaret (2005-07-26). "Mormon past steeped in racism: Some black members want church to denounce racist doctrines". Chicago Tribune. Chicago, Illinois.
  49. ^ a b Race and the Priesthood, LDS Church


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