This is a post I wrote back on March of 2012 and was originally titled “The M* Post I’ll Probably Never Post – The Priesthood Ban.” In light of the Church’s recent statement on the ban, Jettboy’s article on it, and TT’s response to M* in reaction to Jettboy’s article, I have decided to post it after all. I then added an afterward directly as a response to Jettboy’s and TT’s posts.
I was in an online conversation with a numbers of Mormon friends. The question of the priesthood ban came up. Immediately (as is to be expected) there was an eruption of competing explanations offered. I wanted to give my two cents on these explanations and explain why none of them work for me.
First, let’s remember that the LDS Church’s official teachings (as comes from the Church leaders) is that we do not know why the priesthood ban existed. So anything I say is pure speculation and should be taken that way. Indeed, in my opinion everyone that insists on publicly speculating – including myself – should be publically flogged.
The “Mistake” Explanation
The first explanation being offered that I will consider is what I might call “The Standard Bloggernacle Explanation.” Essentially the narrative of this explanation goes like this:
The priesthood ban was simple racism. People back then were racist. Even people risking their lives to save slaves were racist. Even people of African descent themselves were often racist against themselves. So it’s not surprising that the leaders of the LDS church were racist too. By the time racism was being challenged the policy had long been in place and so deeply entrenched that the thought of removing it without a revelation was unthinkable. 
Momentum of the ban carried onward for decades and finally there was enough pressure in the Church to change things and President Kimball finally went to the Lord and asked and the Lord said “what took you so long to ask?”
Now (according to this narrative) all the church has to do is apologize for the ban and be done with it.
This whole narrative has many advantages. For one, it allows us to feel comfortable that the ban was a simple mistake. And (it is argued) that since the LDS Church does not teach that their prophets and seers are infallible (that’s the Catholics!) that there is no doctrinal issue here.
Since this narrative does have much to recommend it, it is unfortunate that it is just so completely useless and wrong.
The first (but not primary) issues here is that it’s well known that presidents of the Church – David O. McKay in particular – specifically went to the Lord asking for a revelation to remove the priesthood ban and felt that they were told not to. The above narrative either completely ignores history on this point or it tries to get around it by saying ‘well, clearly none of the presidents of the Church really asked hard enough.’
A secondary issue with the ‘racist mistake narrative’ is that Brigham Young (this narrative usually claims Brigham Young started the ban – though as we’ll see this is a somewhat challengeable point) did claim this was a revelation. This narrative is forced to make the claim that Brigham Young was wrong about it being a revelation, often citing the Adam-God doctrine or something as an example. But this approach is comparing apples to oranges, of course. Hardly anyone supported the Adam-God doctrine but Brigham Young even when he was alive; and absolutely no one supported it after he was dead. (And here I’m making a possibly false assumption that we even know what Brigham Young intended with that doctrine. Which I doubt we do.) Since Mormon doctrine works through precedent, there simply is no real analogy here.
As bad as these problems might be to the narrative, neither of these is the real problem here. The real problem this narrative fails to address are the ramifications this narrative has for the reliability of the whole idea of revelation. To explain what I mean by this, I think the best way is to make this personal. What I do is I pretend that at the next General Conference President Monson gets up and says the following:
“We have decided that the priesthood ban was a racist mistake and not at all supported by God. David O. McKay clearly wasn’t praying hard enough when he asked to end it. But there it is. We apologize for our forefather’s racist mistakes.“
The issue here is that personally, if the Church did this, revelation would have no purpose or value any more for me. If it’s this easy to get it this wrong, I have no desire – or ability – to believe in revelation at all. And I doubt I’m the only member of the Church that would see such an explanation that way. In fact, I think such an explanation becoming official like this would be synonymous with a slow lingering death for the LDS Church for the Church would no longer have a purpose to exist. 
In short, this whole narrative fails as an explanation because it is forced to ignore important facts and fails to make up for the explanatory gaps in its narrative. It therefore can only ever work as a sort of personal explanation or narrative. But there is no possibility it could ever work as a public explanation or narrative as part of the Church’s official theology.
In short, this explanation isn’t an explanation at all. It leaves out too much unexplained to be useful.
The “God Only Supported It” Explanation
A somewhat better narrative is the idea that the priesthood ban originated as a mistake, but that God supported it after the fact. This narrative exists to attempt to explain why David O. McKay failed to receive an answer without placing the blame on him for ‘not asking hard enough.’
One way I’ve seen this narrative advanced is that God was effectively saying to the Church Leaders “You made your bed, now sleep in it.” Or maybe “God refused to let them remove the ban until they were sufficiently punished for their racism.”
Obviously this adjustment to the explanation improves things somewhat in another way. It suggests that maybe God did – in a sense – support the priesthood ban post facto and therefore we can put a higher degree of trust in the concept of revelation. That is to say, the prophets of the Church were right when they felt the priesthood ban needed a revelation to be removed.
But this explanation really does little to close the explanation gap of the first narrative. The reason why is because it doesn’t explain why God didn’t do something far more obvious: like not supporting the priesthood ban or letting the very first prophet willing to ask about it remove it right away as soon as he asked.
In short, this narrative – like the first – really isn’t an explanation at all and will never be more than a personal explanation. I could rationally no more accept this explanation than the first.
The “Brigham Young Started It” Explanation
This next really isn’t an explanation by itself, but often gets lumped into one of the above explanations as a sort of marshaling of evidence. This narrative goes that Joseph Smith had nothing to do with the priesthood ban and that it entirely came from Brigham Young. [Even the recent Church statement on the ban suggests this.] In history, we know that Joseph Smith did – at least a few times – give the priesthood to people of African descent. Therefore, the ban didn’t really happen until Brigham Young’s time.
Countering this narrative is a number of late remembrances and affidavits of people remembering the ban originating with Joseph Smith. This one, in particular, seems relevant. As the story goes, Zebedee Coltrin and Brother Green got into an argument about whether or not Negros should hold the priesthood and went to Joseph Smith for a ruling:
Brother Joseph kind of dropped his head and rested it on his hand for a minute, and then said, ‘Brother Zebedee is right, for the spirit of the Lord saith the Negro has no right not cannot hold the Priesthood.” He made no reference to Scripture at all, but such was his decision. I don’t recollect ever having any conversation with him afterwards on this subject.
I think the idea that Brigham Young ‘started the ban’ is becoming widely accepted amongst Believing Mormons as well as John Dehlinites. So I am not going to try to dissuade anyone from this belief if it works for them. But let me continue my full analysis anyhow.
The best argument offered against the quotes above that have Joseph Smith starting the ban are that these are later remembrances. Further, they were used to justify the then priesthood ban. So we have a motive and a means here. Mix that with the fact that Joseph Smith did give the priesthood to people with African descent and you’ve got a strong case that Joseph Smith did not start the ban. Further, there are conflicting quotes, Elijah Abel (a black member) remembers Joseph Smith telling him he did have a right to hold the priesthood.
Despite its overwhelming popularity, it seems to me that this argument is less than completely certain and that there is room for both points of view. The issue here is that it’s an all or nothing argument. Joseph Smith either started the ban or Brigham Young did. But we know that isn’t how things really worked in real life. For example, who started the Word of Wisdom? Was it Joseph Smith or Brigham Young? Or was it Joseph F. Smith? As the question is currently stated, there is no single ‘correct’ answer to the question. Joseph Smith received the revelation for section 89, that today we call “The Word of Wisdom.” But he, himself, did not follow it consistently and really no one back then did. They had bigger worries back then and this revelation was considered “not by commandment” anyhow. However, it is not true that Joseph Smith did nothing to try to advance the Word of Wisdom. There are historical records of the Church Leaders, led by Joseph Smith attempting to ban people from office if they didn’t follow the Word of Wisdom. Yet, Joseph Smith himself didn’t always follow the Word of Wisdom. How can we explain this ‘discrepancy’?
The problem is that we’re comparing Joseph Smith at different times and under different pressures. Joseph believed in his revelations. He also knew this one wasn’t by commandment. So he made some attempts – when he thought he had the time and strength to do so – to give the Word of Wisdom its due as a revelation from God. But other times he downplayed it.
Later, Brigham Young felt that we were ready to accept the Word of Wisdom as a commandment. Yet, he himself still didn’t keep it perfectly. (He wrote to his son on a mission and told him to keep working on the Word of Wisdom as he was doing because it was a revelation from God.)
It wasn’t until the end of polygamy that the Word of Wisdom was finally advanced to the point that it became the primary defining outward feature of the faith. 
In short, no one person ‘started the word of wisdom’ per se. It was a revelation Joseph Smith received and every generation felt it should be treated with respect and should be practiced. But they placed different emphases on it.
It seems to me that the all or nothing approach to the priesthood ban doesn’t work. For one thing, I don’t really see a difference between ‘blaming it on Brigham’ and accepting that Joseph Smith probably did sow the seeds for it himself but never implemented it.
The “It Was for the Racist Whites” Explanation
If we are taking the idea of explanations and closing explanation gaps seriously, then it seems to me that there is a way to do this, but that it has a problem all its own that is somewhat serious. In fact, it might be serious enough to make it DOA for most people.
The missing explanation is this: the priesthood ban was both from God and also racist.
Look carefully at the quote above. Why does “Joseph Smith” (as reported by Coltrin) believe blacks should be banned from the priesthood? Coltrin’s late remembrance claims its based on lineage, but the actual context around this suggests Joseph Smith may have only reluctantly agreed to the priesthood ban (i.e. he dropped his head) and really didn’t hold it as a scriptural (i.e. if Joseph said anything at all it wasn’t based on stories of Cain, etc.) yet did claim some sort of inspiration or revelation to it. The theory has been suggested that perhaps the incident Zebedee mentions took place, but he remembered it partially wrong. Imagine Joseph agreeing to not given blacks the priesthood based on Zebedee’s own fiery concerns on the subject being typical of people at the time. He does claim it as an inspiration, but Zebedee himself adds in the lineage portion years later based on a defense of then given explanations. This is certainly not the simplest possible explanation, but the quote does at least give as a smidgen of evidence for it.
This suggests a possible explanation that suffers from no explanation gaps. Can we imagine a God that knows his people and is willing to intentionally setup a priesthood ban – without telling them the reason because he knows they can’t accept it – because that is the reality of that time and he was being merciful in working with their short comings?
And, if we can accept such a God, does this not close all the above mentioned explanation gaps? For example, now it really is a revelation from God. And the church really can’t reverse it without God’s permission. And, we now have a built-in explanation for why David O. McKay was told ‘no’ about reversing the ban: because it wasn’t time yet. (Just like he said.)
In short, God took responsibility for the priesthood ban, but it existed because of the weakness of the Saints.
For all that this explanation offers over and above the gaps in the previous explanations, it seems to me that this explanation has a fatal flaw: We can’t accept such a God.
The idea that God would actually accept (and even take responsibility for) the racism of Zebedee Coltrin or others in His church is entirely unthinkable. Racism has assumed the position as the greatest and most obvious evil. It’s probably the one really completely safe ‘evil’ you can portray on TV or in the media. A racist person is a bad person –through and through. We believe no God worth worshiping wouldn’t know this. To say that God would in any way support racism – even out of mercy – misses the point that racists don’t deserve such a mercy.
In short, this explanation fails because it can’t be accepted by real people. And so – if it were the truth – God would be unable to even tell us it’s the truth. It would be better to have no explanation at all and let everyone argue over it than to admit this was the truth. So this explanation might just fail the most miserably of all of the above.
In short, I don’t really believe there is a workable explanation for the priesthood ban. The Church’s stance on this – that we just don’t know the explanation — is right on. They are showing much more wisdom here than we on the Bloggernacle give them credit for. And frankly, I’m showing a lot less wisdom than them even writing this post even though I don’t intend to ever publish it.
Afterwards: My Response to Jettboy’s Post
In my original post, I did not consider Jettboy’s theory that the ‘reason’ for the priesthood ban was due to ‘The Curse of Cain.’ I will now do so and demonstrate that this ‘reason’ or ‘explanation’ is also not a true reason or explanation at all.
If I am reading Jettboy correctly, he makes the argument that the Church’s new official position is not at odds with the older ‘Curse of Cain’ explanations. If I might summarize Jettboy’s argument from his post (including some things he says in the comments) I think this is his intended argument:
- Brigham Young spoke as a prophet and said the priesthood ban was the curse of Cain (i.e. it was meant to be lineal for some unstated reason that excluded the, supposed, decedents of Ham.). You’re free to believe or not believe this.
- There was then later unauthorized folklore
- The Church’s recent statement only disavows the folklore, not the original lineal explanation
- Thus he believes the Curse of Cain argument could be valid and should be taken into consideration at a minimum.
It was clear from the Bloggernacle’s reaction that they overwhelming felt that the Church specifically disavowed this explanation and that thus Jettboy is out of step with the current teachings of the Church. No one tried to honestly analyze his argument, of course, because this is generally considered too racist for consideration. However, since I just calmly analyzed all the above explanations no matter how bad, I’m going to analyze this one also and explain why it doesn’t work as an ‘explanation’ either.
The Merit of Jettboy’s Argument
First, it seems to me that this ‘explanation,’ if we are being honest, actually has one sizable merit: It entirely preserves revelation’s primacy, perhaps even more so than any of the above explanations in my original post. If Brigham Young says the ban is by revelation and that the reason is the ‘Curse of Cain’ then that’s the answer! We’re done. Can’t get easier than that.
Now it seems to me that Jettboy is explicitly writing about this topic precisely because it strengthens the primacy of revelation even further than any of my above suggestions, and I can’t really argue with the desire, at least, to want to strength revelation. So I think I see where Jettboy is coming from on this.
What the Heck is “The Curse of Cain” Anyhow?
Now let’s consider the problems with this theory. First of all, it just kicks the explanation down the road. Since it’s not at all clear what “The Curse of Cain” actually means or was meant to accomplish.
Imagine someone telling you that such and such book has been banned and when you request an explanation you are told “Because of the Curse of Cain.” Wouldn’t you want a bit more than that before you actually considered this an explanation? In fact, how is it an explanation at all? This is the main thing I find so confusing about Jettboy’s argument. He acts as if “The Curse of Cain” is somehow an explanation all by itself. But clearly that isn’t the case.
Now when Brigham Young originally said this, undoubtedly he had something in mind for what he meant by “The Curse of Cain” though he doesn’t elaborate in the quotes Jettboy gives. And likely his audience had something in mind since “The Curse of Cain” was actually a short hand for a more elaborate explanation. For example, “The Curse of Cain” might back then refer to God sending only certain souls through that lineage as a either symbolic (or retributive? or protective?) act. But even Jettboy calls that extra ‘explanation’ a folklore speculation and agrees the Church has disavowed it.
So we’ve essentially severed a term “The Curse of Cain” from any sort of meaning whatsoever as far as I can tell. This is what bothers me so much about Jettboy’s approach. You can’t just claim “The Curse of Cain” is a “reason” (as he calls it in his comments) unless you are going to actually explain what the heck it means! And to do that is to then introduce the very folklore that is disavowed!
I am left with the impression that Jettboy more or less acknowledges this problem when he says “Why the Lord kept the Priesthood from blacks during part of the Restoration might remain a mystery.” Yup, have to agree. So I am totally unclear why Jettboy is even bring up the whole Curse of Cain thing at all, honestly.
But it seems to me that minus this disavowed folklore, there is no ‘reason’ being offered at all. And in fact, we can pretty much decide any reason at all.
- The Curse of Cain is that white people will be totally bigoted and racist against Blacks.
- The Curse of Cain is that the Church will mistakenly not give the Priesthood to blacks due to #1.
- The Curse of Cain is that God will see that his Church isn’t ready for the truth that Blacks are equal to Whites, so he’ll temporarily not allow the Priesthood to Blacks until Whites are no longer racist.
When understood this say, it’s pretty clear that every single argument made can be easily fit with the term “The Curse of Cain.” So it seems to me the argument is basically pointless.
Are African’s All Descendants of the Bibical Ham?
As far as a straight reading of Jettboy, then I do not see how he actually makes a point if his point was to produce a ‘reason’ or ‘explanation’ for the priesthood ban. But Jettboy does make clear that Brigham Young somehow tied it to the lineage of Ham (with Cain as the forefather).
I think I can see why people might be concerned with that interpretation both from a social standpoint as well as a scientific one and why they might not be anxious to accept such an ‘explanation’. First of all, our science really hasn’t left room for that possibility.
I haven’t written much about this problem in the past, but I did talk some about the problems in this post. I suppose the short form of the problem is that it is pretty easy to establish that human beings have been around a lot longer than the Biblical account suggests. And people of African descent have been around the longest. So it is a physical impossibility that all Black people — but no one else — could have descended from Ham (and thus Cain). In fact, it’s quite easy to demonstrate that the American Indians are descendents of people severed from “the old world” considerably further back in time then when Ham would have been alive!
Adding to the problems are:
- Cain lived far enough back in time and by now probably everyone is a descendent of him via diffusion.
- The evidence is overwhelming that we’re all descendents of Africa and that humanity started there.
I, for one, have very big concerns about simply taking a statement like Jettboy does and not making an attempt to explain how it’s even possible, because I personally do feel a need to acknowledge the science on the subject.
But I also know some people treat biblical stories through the eyes of faith. They know there is a mismatch from science, but they believe that in the end science will be disproven compared to the Bible, though they don’t know how. I have no issue with people who take this faith-based stance either. But I would have prefered that the post at least acknowledge such a serious issue.
But for the sake of argument, let’s assume that is the key issues of his argument: that Brigham Young insisted that Blacks are descendants of Cain.
If that is our given understanding, it should be obvious by now that we’re not dealing with any sort of reason or explanation at all. In fact, as an “explanation” it now literally now begs the question. For if one of our assumptions is that the biblical story is literal (which is implied in the ‘eyes of faith’ approach) and the only thing we learn from Brigham Young saying “the ban is from the Curse of Cain” (which can only be true if we accept the ‘eyes of faith’ approach), then all we’ve really logically stated so far is “Blacks — who we are assuming are descendants of Cain as per biblical story — were banned from the Priesthood because they are descendants of Cain.” It’s circular logic. It tells you nothing at all as far as I can see. You might as well have told me that the reason blacks were banned from the priesthood is because there is a ban on blacks holding the priesthood.
Again, to turn “The Curse of Cain” into an actually non-circular explanation, we need the additional folklore that even Jettboy says isn’t valid. Without that folklore this isn’t a bad explanation, it isn’t even an explanation in the first place.
But if Jettboy’s only point is that he feels free to continue to believe on faith that old biblical account (plus some tradition) and he doesn’t feel that particular story has been ‘disavowed’ I guess I’ll shrug my shoulders and move on. Until he has some reason to discuss this further or why it’s in any way signficant, I’m not sure what else to discuss with him on this.
Is Jettboy’s Post is at Odds with the Teachings of the Church
Now it seems to me that Jettboy is assuming that just because Brigham Young stated it as a prophet (in his opinion) that therefore it is not part of the “folklore” the Church disavowed. Now I confess that when I read the church’s official statement I most certainly did assume that the “Curse of Cain” argument was part of the folklore. But to be fair to Jettboy, I confess that it doesn’t actually call out anything specific as folklore vs. non-folklore, so logically speaking I would have to admit that there is at least some chance that Jettboy is right and that I have no way to disprove him.
This essentially then just becomes an argument of “how I read it.” To most people it is just obvious that “The Curse of Cain” is specifically what was being disavowed. Meanwhile to Jettboy it is just obvious that it isn’t. Who is to say? Well, presumably the Church leaders could say, but they chose to not get into specifics.
So let’s then play a game. I’m going to take each side’s assumptions at face value and then analyze the result and create a sort of truth table.
Assumption 1: The Brethren specifically intended “The Curse of Cain” to be folklore that was disavowed.
Conclusion: Jettboy is at odds with the teachings of the current Brethren.
Assumption 2: As it turns out, the Brethren all actually believe in the Curse of Cain argument, or at least they didn’t intend for it to fall under the label of “folklore.”
Now under assumption 1, it is obvious that Jettboy is at odds with the intentions of the Brethren. But can we assume that given assumption 2 that he is not at odds with the intention of the Brethren?
Well, actually no. In fact, it seems pretty clear that the Brethren’s statement clearly avoided stating that “The Curse of Cain” didn’t fall under the folklore. Given assumption 2, it seems pretty clear to me that the Brethren – who we are assuming for the sake of argument all believe in the Curse of Cain – were intentionally writing the statement so that the public would mistakenly think the Curse of Cain fell under the folklore being disavowed. That is to say, I must assume that given Jettboy’s assumptions that the Brethren wanted to mislead the public from what they really believed. But if this is the case, then Jettboy publishing this post still seems to me to be at odds with the Brethren precisely because he’s going public with what they were trying to avoid saying in the first place. Therefore it seems to me that one way or another Jettboy’s post was somehow at odds with the Brethren’s current teachings, at least to some degree.
Afterwards To Jettboy and TT
To those that don’t know. I am the one that recruited Jettboy to Millennial Star. I in no way regret that decision. So all of you that have been wondering who to blame for Jettboy, I am the one to blame. You are free now to blame me.
I know Jettboy and I know that what he really wants out of the Bloggernacle is for them to actually one day make some sort of rational argument against him rather than just using simple name calling, strawman arguments, outright misrepresentation, or use of morality as a ‘conversation stopper.’ He intentionally picks the most controversial topics and wants to see how people fail over and over again to actually respond to him logically just because he pushed their button.
Now in my opinion, his post was a valid point for discussion – in private – but a very unwise post in a public forum.
But let’s face it, at a minimum we can say that Jettboy’s original post well researched in terms of its history. And he avoids ever saying what “the Curse of Cain” actually means, so he forces no particular explanation and therefore leaves open all the explanations his own opponents are already advocating. He even suggests that possibility that Brigham Young was wrong. As far as trying to be even-handed, you really can’t fault Jettboy on those fronts.
Jettboy, I have given you what you want. I have shown you respect by taking your arguments and driving them to their logical conclusions to the best of my ability. I honestly do not see how you make a substantive point. You don’t offer an explanation for the ban other than a phase that can literally mean anything we want. It is based on an assumption about lineage that science doesn’t allow for, so you are merely affirming your personal belief that Brigham Young was right that the ban was somehow related to lineage, though you offer no reason why this matters. So frankly I’m perplex why you made this post.
You said nothing other than to show that what Brigham Young stated can reasonably be allow us to interpret “The Curse of Cain” in such a way as to not be part of what was disavowed. Since the interpretation is entirely open and could mean even the arguments made by your critics, then it seems to me that you are vacuously correct
To summarize: I would respectfully ask, Jettboy, that you carefully consider my arguments against yours. I believe if you really look at my points and follow them carefully you will come to the same conclusion I have that “The Curse of Cain” reason is in fact no reason at all without the disavowed folklore. Thus, by implication, “the Curse of Cain” must also have been effectively disavowed as well except in the vacuous sense that it might refer to some heretofore unknown truth that we’ll eventually understand.
And I believe you will see that I am right that your post must, in some sense or other, be at odds with the current intentions of the Church leaders. I appreciate your original post in that it forced me to think and to respond using my own logic and reasoning abilities. But I do not feel it was an appropriate public post because of the obvious potential for misunderstanding – which ultimately did ensue.
And to TT and Millennial Star’s critics: in case you were wondering, this was what a rational argument looks like.
 This isn’t historically accurate. Historian Leonard Arrington recorded that there was, in fact, a decision at one point by the Quorum of the 12 to remove the priesthood ban and that the President of the Church pushed back and felt such a large change would require a revelation. So apparently it wasn’t unthinkable. The possiblity that it was just a policy change was fully considered.
 I note here the fact that many people I know that use the ‘mistake narrative’ don’t actually believe in revelation any more. They are merely offering this explanation up to believers as a possibility without any real thought to how to cross the obvious explanation gap in the narrative. There are exceptions. I know several people that are staunch believers in the truth claims of the LDS church and also believe this narrative, but it’s the rare person that can cross this explanatory gap via faith. I, for one, cannot. I suspect I’m not even close to being alone.
 Those that have studied the making of religions have found that religions cease to exist if they don’t have a means of defining the religion as a cultural unit and as a distinct people. Joseph F. Smith was inspired to make the Word of Wisdom that necessary feature now that polygamy was gone. Those on the Bloggernacle that feel the Church should end the Word of Wisdom should keep that in mind.