Dispelling the Myth of the “Curse of Cain”

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In connection with Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith, the priesthood ban is getting a lot of attention from the media again.

The most recent turn comes from The Washington Post, where reporter Jason Horowitz interviews Darius Gray and other black Latter-day Saints about their experience with and feelings about the ban. Searching for a theological explanation for the ban, Horowitz contacted BYU associate professor Randy Bott. Horowitz paraphrases Bott:

According to Mormon scriptures, the descendants of Cain, who slew his brother Abel, “were black.” One of Cain’s descendants was Egyptus, a woman Mormons believe was the namesake of Egypt. She married Ham, whose descendants were themselves cursed and, in the view of many Mormons, barred from the priesthood by his father, Noah. Bott points to the Mormon holy text, the Book of Abraham, as suggesting that all of the descendents of Ham and Egyptus were thus black and barred from the priesthood.

Professor Bott’s explanation is an example of how doctrinal folklore continues to be taught by well-meaning members of the Church. Ironically, the dubious “folk doctrine” in question is no longer even relevant, since it was created to explain a Church policy that was reversed nearly thirty-four years ago.

This theory was adopted by early Latter-day Saints from similar beliefs in early American Protestantism that were used to justify slavery. The Saints used it to explain the policy of denying priesthood ordination to those of African descent, a policy for which no revelation or prophetic explanation was ever given.

The idea went something like this: In the premortal existence, certain spirits were set aside to come to Earth through a lineage that was cursed and marked, first by Cain’s murder of his brother and covenant with Satan, and then again later by Ham’s offense against his father Noah. The reasons why this lineage was set apart weren’t clear, but it was speculated they were somehow less valiant than their premortal brethren during the war in heaven. In this life, then, the holy priesthood was to be withheld from all who had had any trace of that lineage.

As neat and coherent as that scenario might seem, the scriptures typically cited in its support cannot logically be interpreted this way unless one starts with the priesthood ban itself and then works backward, looking for scriptures to support a predetermined belief.

 

Cain (Genesis 4:11–15; Moses 5:23–25, 36–40). Following Cain’s covenant with Satan and murder of Abel, the Lord cursed him that the earth would not yield its strength for him, and that he would be a fugitive and a vagabond. Nothing was said of priesthood. The Lord placed a mark upon him, not as part of the curse, but to protect him from others who would kill him. The mark itself was not described, and there was no indication that it would be passed to his descendents.[1]

Six generations after Cain, Enoch saw a vision of an unspecified future time (Moses 7:4) in which “the seed of Cain were black” (7:22). There is no explanation for this blackness or where it came from; it is not even clear if we are to take it literally or figuratively.[2]

 

Canaan (Genesis 9:20–27). Ham’s son Canaan, for some unexplained reason, was cursed for his father’s offense against Noah. No change in skin color was mentioned,[3] nor was there any statement on priesthood. According to the Bible, Canaan was the founder of the Canaanite nation (Genesis 10:15–19). The Canaanites were Caucasian, not black, and had no connection with sub-Saharan (black) Africans.[4]

The Hebrew words “Cain” (qayin) and “Canaan” (ke(na’an) are not related; it is a coincidence that they sound alike in English.

 

Egyptus (Abraham 1:21–27). The Book of Abraham is the only place that any scriptures speak of the priesthood being withheld from any lineage, but even then it is only the specific lineage of the Pharaohs of Egypt, and there is no explanation as to why that lineage could not have the priesthood, or whether the proscription was temporary or permanent, or which other lineages, if any—especially in the modern world—would be covered by that proscription.[5] According to the Bible, Egypt was founded by Mizraim, another son of Ham, and Canaan’s brother (which may be why Abraham 1:21 connects Egypt with the Canaanites). Egyptians, both ancient and modern, were not black Africans, but Northern Africans, culturally related to peoples of the Middle East.

 

Conclusion. The speculation that modern blacks are the descendants of Cain and Ham is unsupported from the scriptures. In reality we do not know why God allowed the denial of the priesthood to blacks for a time in this dispensation. All we do know is that policy has been reversed by a living prophet.

The “curse of Cain” folk doctrine may have been understandable for our LDS ancestors, but it is neither understandable nor necessary today. The Church is for all God’s children, for “he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female…and all are alike unto God” (2 Nephi 26:33).

 


[1] See Alma 3:18, where the Amlicites “began to mark themselves in their foreheads, [for] they had come out in open rebellion against God; therefore it was expedient that the curse should fall upon them.”

[2] In the 1840 edition of the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith changed the phrase “white and delightsome” in 2 Nephi 30:6 to read “pure and delightsome,” indicating that “white,” in at least this context, did not refer to literal skin color, but to righteousness.

[3] Before the flood, there was a race of people called the Canaanites upon whom “a blackness came” (Moses 7:7–8). The text does not indicate if the “blackness” was physical or spiritual. The Canaanites mentioned by Abraham lived in modern Palestine (Abraham 2:15), and Abraham did not have access to the record we call the Book of Moses (it had not yet been written), so it’s doubtful there is any connection between the two groups.

[4] If anyone is a candidate for the ancestor of black Africans, it’s Cush, Canaan’s brother, whose people founded what is now known as Ethiopia (Genesis 10:6; see the reference to skin color in Jeremiah 13:23).

[5] Hugh Nibley offered the explanation that the denial of the priesthood to the Pharaonic line had to do with the claim of the priesthood through the matriarchal line (through Egyptus) rather than the patriarchal. See Abraham in Egypt (Deseret Book, 2000 [2nd] ed.), p. 360–61.

This entry was posted in Book of Abraham, LDS Scriptures, News stories, Politics, Racial Issues on by .

About Mike Parker

Mike Parker has been involved in LDS apologetics since the mid-1980s, and on the Internet since 1997. He joined the team of FairMormon volunteers in 2002, and has been involved in the creation of the FairMormon wiki (http://en.fairmormon.org) and running the annual FairMormon conference. He is the recipient of FairMormon’s 2006 John Taylor Defender of the Faith Award. He resides with his gorgeous wife and two wonderful children in Utah's Dixie region.

14 thoughts on “Dispelling the Myth of the “Curse of Cain”

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  3. Mike Parker Post author

    For the record, I wholeheartedly agree with Daniel Peterson’s assessment of this unfortunate situation:

    “I’m sure that my BYU colleague [Randy Bott] is a good and kind man who meant no harm. And I won’t condemn him. I hope that this controversy passes quickly, that he is not made “an offender for a word,” and that no long-term negative consequences befall him for his remarks.

    But I want to distance myself — and my church — from what was said. I strongly disagree with it, and it doesn’t represent Mormonism as I believe and understand Mormonism.”

    http://dcpsicetnon.blogspot.com/2012/02/unfortunate-attempt-to-explain-pre-1978.html

    My remarks in the OP are not meant as a criticism of Professor Bott, but of the doctrinal folklore that he employed in his interview with the Washington Post.

  4. Mike Parker Post author

    YvonneS wrote:

    Doesn’t Moses 7:4-8 explain where the black mentioned in v. 22 comes from?

    See footnote #3, and also my comment in the OP that the words “Cain” and “Canaan” are not related.

    So, no, Moses 7:4–8 doesn’t explain 7:22.

  5. Mike Parker Post author

    The Church has issued a statement in response to the WaPo article and Professor Bott’s remarks:

    The positions attributed to BYU professor Randy Bott in a recent Washington Post article absolutely do not represent the teachings and doctrines of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. BYU faculty members do not speak for the Church. It is unfortunate that the Church was not given a chance to respond to what others said.

    The Church’s position is clear—we believe all people are God’s children and are equal in His eyes and in the Church. We do not tolerate racism in any form.

    For a time in the Church there was a restriction on the priesthood for male members of African descent. It is not known precisely why, how, or when this restriction began in the Church but what is clear is that it ended decades ago. Some have attempted to explain the reason for this restriction but these attempts should be viewed as speculation and opinion, not doctrine. The Church is not bound by speculation or opinions given with limited understanding.

    We condemn racism, including any and all past racism by individuals both inside and outside the Church.

    http://www.mormonnewsroom.org/article/racial-remarks-in-washington-post-article

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  10. Mike Parker Post author

    The following is my response to a private email that was sent to me regarding this blog post.—Mike

    What is the correct reading of Abraham 1:26? Like the vast majority of other passages of scripture, there is no “official” interpretation that has come down from the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve. Most scriptures are left to speak for themselves and to inspire each individual and he or she sees fit. The interpretation of a passage may have one personal meaning to me, and a different one for you — that’s how the scriptures become catalysts in our lives.

    Every once in a while a passage of scripture sparks enough controversy that the leaders of the Church feel the need to step in and correct misunderstandings about it (for example, in November 1905 the First Presidency wrote a lengthy letter correcting false notions of “the one mighty and strong” referred to in D&C 85:7). In this case, however, there is no official interpretation and so the passage stands on its own.

    There are several ways to read it, and the reader is left to determine which is the best. Personally, I think Hugh Nibley’s comment is closest to the mark (see footnote 5 in the blog post).

    The correlation with other passages in the Book of Moses has a widespread and longstanding following, but, as I demonstrate in the blog post, its validity is extremely dubious. To hold to it, one has to make several logical leaps that are not warranted by the scriptures cited. For example, Abraham 1 does not use the word “black” anywhere, nor does it speak of race, or even mention Cain; it simply refers to Pharoah’s lineage not having the right to the priesthood (:27), but it does not say why. And none of the other passages cited in this interpretation have anything to say about priesthood — it’s only by stitching these passages together (illegitimately, IMHO) that one can arrive at some sort of general priesthood ban based on race that applies in all ages. It’s so flimsy that it falls apart even after a cursory examination.

    The Canaanites referred to in the Old Testament, who occupied the Israelite lands and needed to be driven out by Joshua, are not the same Canaanites referred to in Moses 7:6–8, 12. The Canaanites in the Book of Moses (upon whom a “blackness” came) were pre-Flood, and would have been destroyed in the deluge. The connection of their name with the Biblical Canaanites is not known, and may be coincidental. (Keep in mind that we’re dealing with translations of ancient languages here, and two groups with similar-sounding names may have been spelled the same.)

    The Canaanites who occupied the promised land spoke a Semitic language and are related to the peoples of Arabia and north Africa, not to sub-Saharan (black) Africans. It is these Canaanites who infiltrated and seized control of Egypt, establishing a dynasty called the Hyksos (or “Shepherd Kings”) that lasted from 1700 BC to 1550 BC. What’s interesting about this is that the Biblical Joseph married an Egyptian woman (Genesis 41:45), and to explain how he could do this without having his children banned from the priesthood (per Abraham 1), believers in the “curse of Cain/Ham” theory have postulated that Joseph’s wife was a Hyksos, and therefore not part of the Egyptian lineage cursed from holding the priesthood. But if the Biblical Canaanites were black, and the Canaanites started the Hyksos dynasty, then Joseph would have married a black woman! — You see how convoluted this all becomes, and how it collapses under its own weight.

    Professor Bott was already due to retire in a few months, so I doubt this little controversy will have any impact on his career. I don’t wish to see him harmed for innocently repeating the same folklore that has been used for generations, and I wish him nothing but the best in his retirement. In the end I think this episode will have a positive effect, because it has brought to light the old myths and forced today’s people to confront them.

  11. Mike Parker Post author

    Another thought: If “a blackness came upon all the children of Canaan” (Moses 7:8), doesn’t that indicate that they were not black previous to this? If they were the descendants of Cain, and Cain was “cursed” with black skin, then shouldn’t the Canaanites already have been black from birth?

    This indicates to me — especially when read in the context of the rest of the passage — that this “blackness,” whatever it was, was temporary. The passage doesn’t indicate that it was connected to skin color, in any case.

  12. michaelhoggan

    Observations on race and reconciliation from the grandson of a “Bataan Death March” survivor

    My maternal grandfather spent most of years 1942-1945 in a Japanese POW camp. He was subjected to brutal torture, starvation, and other horrible conditions. I know that people of African descent in general, and the descendents of slaves in particular, have very real historical grievances. I likewise know that they are not alone.

    It is true that Japan is not a majority Christian nation, and that even today Latter Day Saints comprise a very small minority of the populace. However, Japan was considered a modern civilized nation in the 1930′s, just like Italy and Germany. The fact that modern civilized nations could do what the “Axis” did during the 1930′s and 1940′s is “a witness and a warning” about our fallen nature.

    Having said that, I do not bear animosity towards the Japanese, Germans or Italians. I wish that they had mustered the strength to prevent people like Mussolini, Hitler, and the Japanese military junta from gaining power. However, it is not my place to condemn them for not doing so.

    I do not know the reasons why men of African descent (typically) were not ordained to the Priesthood prior to 1978. Heavenly Father always gives his commandments within the context of the times. Even the Word of Wisdom was not originally given as a commandment, though it certainly is now. I was born in 1974, yet I confess that I am guilty of a lack of charity towards my African brothers and sisters at times.

    Relations between ethnicities, genders and religions are, and have always been, complicated. We do both the present and the past a disservice by pretending otherwise. I am very grateful for the Church’s most recent reminder (yes it is a reminder, not some entirely new stance) that the “fencesitter” theory is false doctrine.

    I was very impressed by Daniel Peterson’s comments about this most current controversy. I applaud him for being willing to talk about his parent’s attitudes as well as his ability to look past their imperfections with love.

    Ultimately, our task is to develop greater charity towards all of our brothers and sisters, past and present.

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