Resources for Old Testament Gospel Doctrine lesson 5

Compiled by Armand L. Mauss

The title for Lesson Five–“If Thou Doest Well, Thou Shalt Be Accepted”–is quoted from the Book of Moses 5:23 (see also Genesis 4:7). This lesson gives considerable attention to the brothers Cain and Abel, and particularly to the consequences of Cain’s jealousy and murder of Abel.

Throughout most of the history of the Church, many Latter-day Saints have assumed that among the consequences for Cain’s murder were the mark of a black skin and the curse of priesthood denial for his descendants, including all people of black African lineage. Some of the Saints have also believed and taught that inadequate faithfulness of some of the spirits in the pre-existence required that they enter mortality with the curse of Cain. Such teachings have been officially disavowed by the Church in a recent topical essay (https://www.lds.org/topics/race-and-the-priesthood?lang=eng) . However, scriptures once used to justify these teachings still cause concern among some of the members.  

Troubling Scriptures and Their Resolutions :

  •  Are we not told, in both the Old Testament (Gen. 4:8-15) and the Pearl of Great Price (Moses 5:35-40), that as a result of Abel’s murder, the Lord  placed both a “curse” and “mark” on Cain and his descendants?  

1) Yes, but nowhere do the scriptures say what the “mark” was, except that it would protect it’s bearer from being killed; and also:

2) Nowhere do the scriptures say that the “curse” on Cain and his descendants had anything to do with race or with the priesthood.

  • Doesn’t the Pearl of Great Price say that the descendants of Cain were black?

1) Yes, but notice that these passages (Moses 7:8) say a “blackness came upon”  the people of Canaan long after Cain’s time; we don’t even know if these are the same people described later as “the seed of Cain” (7:22); also that:

2) This chapter of Moses comes from a vision to Enoch (Moses 7:4-7), several generations after Cain, about a time yet in the future even later than that.

3) These passages still do not say just what this “blackness” was, or that it  had any relevance to the mark put upon Cain or to the priesthood.

  • Yet there was also a curse put on Ham, in Noah’s time, that denied the priesthood to his descendants — right?

1) Not really. Notice that this curse was a result of Ham’s disrespect for his father Noah, and that it actually was placed on Ham’s son Canaan (Gen. 9:20-27; also:

2) There is no reason to assume that this curse had anything to do with the priesthood; and also:

3) It was the lineage of Ham’s wife that was “cursed as to the priesthood”  (Abraham 1:20-27); again, we do not know that this curse had anything to do with Cain or his posterity (or even with the curse on Ham’s son Canaan).

  •  Don’t the scriptures say somewhere that some spirits were assigned to be born in cursed lineages in mortality because of their lack of faithfulness in the pre-existence?

1) No. That was just an idea circulating around the Church in an effort to  “explain” why black people were not eligible for the priesthood.

2) The only thing that the scriptures tell us about differences among the spirit children of our Heavenly Parents is that some were designated to become leaders in mortality because they were especially “noble and great” (Abraham 3:20-23).

To Sum up: The only way that the above scriptures can be made to seem relevant to race or priesthood is by starting first with the traditional theory about Cain, Ham, pre-existence, etc., and then imposing that theory back upon on one’s interpretation of the scriptures. At least one LDS apostle has deplored this theory as “folklore” (http://www.pbs.org/mormons/interviews/holland.html).

The great tragedy of adopting such folklore is that it is damaging and painful to our black brothers and sisters, who are thereby being told, in effect, that their ancestry results from a covenant with Satan (Moses 5:41-54).

To understand the true origins of the folklore about Cain, Ham, and their descendants, see the following scholarly studies:

  1. Stephen R. Haynes, Noah’s Curse: The Biblical Justification of American Slavery (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002).
  2. David M. Goldenberg, The Curse of Ham: Race and Slavery in Early Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003).
  3. Colin Kidd, The Forging of Races: Race and Scripture in the Protestant Atlantic World, 1600–2000 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

Armand Mauss is Professor Emeritus of Sociology at Washington State University and author or editor of seven books including All Abraham’s Children: Changing Mormon Conceptions of Race and Lineage (Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 2003).  He was one of the founders of the Howard W. Hunter Chair in Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University. He lives in Irvine, California with his wife, Ruth.