Black Saints and the Priesthood (Joseph Smith era)
This timeline provides key benchmarks in the history of Black Latter-day Saints and priesthood ordination during Joseph Smith's lifetime.
December 1830–May 1831
Joseph Smith's translation of Moses 7:22 states "the seed of Cain were black."
In his Bible translation, Joseph Smith adds a phrase to the account of Noah's cursing of Canaan: "a vail of darkness shall cover him that he shall be known among all men."
July 1, 1833
William W. Phelps writes that Cain's curse of a dark skin was continued through Ham's lineage and that he "[broke] the rule of God, by marrying . . . a black wife."
Doctrine and Covenants is published with Section 102 directing missionaries not to teach or baptize slaves without permission from their masters.
March 31, 1836
Joseph Smith describes Black slaves as the "sons of Canaan" and advocates a non-interference approach to slavery.
July 18, 1836
The First Presidency wrote that the Nauvoo Temple will be a place of worship for "persons of all languages, and of every tongue, and of every color."
Joseph Smith publishes the Book of Abraham, which states that Pharaoh, a descendant of Ham was "cursed . . . as pertaining to the Priesthood" and that he was "of that lineage, by which he could not have the right of Priesthood."
Did Black members of the Church receive the priesthood during Joseph Smith's lifetime?
Yes. Two Black men—Elijah Able[BIO] and Q. Walker Lewis[BIO]
 were known to have held priesthood office. There is also some evidence that Enoch Lewis,[BIO] son of Q. Walker Lewis, was ordained, but it's unclear if this was during Joseph's lifetime.
Weren't there several more Black Saints ordained during Joseph Smith's lifetime?
Did Black members receive temple ordinances during Joseph Smith's lifetime?
No, not really. The only known exception is Elijah Able who received his washing and anointing in Kirtland in 1836 and participated in baptisms for the dead in Nauvoo. Based on available records, no other Black Saints participated in the temple ordinances during Joseph's lifetime.
However, in an 1840 First Presidency address, the Nauvoo Temple was described as a place of worship for "persons of all languages, and of every tongue, and of every color."
Were there restrictions on Church membership for Black members?
No, not usually. According to William W. Phelps,[BIO] as of 1833, the Latter-day Saints had “no special rule” about admitting Black members to the Church. However, Latter-day Saint leaders later placed various restrictions on baptizing Black members due to local circumstances related to slavery.
Did Joseph Smith implement a policy to restrict Black members of the Church from the priesthood and temple ordinances?
Probably not. There is no record contemporary with Joseph that indicates he taught or established a policy that Black Saints were to be restricted from the priesthood or temple ordinances.
However, there is one later reference from William Appleby to a Church policy of priesthood restriction during Joseph Smith's time as prophet. There are also later accounts reporting that Joseph taught privately about a priesthood restriction.
But didn't Joseph Smith teach that Black people were "sons of Canaan" and that some people had been restricted from the priesthood due to their ancestry?
In 1842, Joseph Smith also translated the Book of Abraham, which describes a priesthood restriction seemingly related to the lineage Pharaoh shared with Canaan through Ham. However, there are no accounts of Joseph's contemporaries using scripture as a rationale for priesthood restriction during his lifetime.
How did early Church membership feel about Black people?
Because there were relatively few Black members among the early Saints, there are relatively few records that indicate the disposition towards them. It seems as though early Saints generally considered Black people to be worthy of ministry and spiritual support, but they felt conflicted about slavery.
Was Joseph Smith racist?
Yes and no. There are relatively few records about Joseph and his disposition on Black people, but the few available show a conflicted position. In the 1830s, he advocated for a neutral position on slavery and taught that the Bible condoned it but also received a revelation that no man should be in bondage. He later strongly advocated for an end to slavery.
On a personal level, there are accounts of his kindness and sympathy to Black people, but there is one known record of Joseph using a racial slur. Joseph and Emma invited Jane Manning James,[BIO] a Black woman, to board with his family, and Jane said that Emma had offered to have her "adopted to them as their child."
- Christian P
“I believe in our church. Of course it's shocking to me that it has a history of racism. But it does. And it's good to acknowledge and not deny that. Our ancestors were from a different time and culture. We shouldn't judge them too harshly not understanding. The church has repented now.”
- Vincent G
“I don't like the idea that the Lord would let His prophets be racist, since He loves everyone equally. But I suppose prophets are flawed people too. But then what about the ban? I don't know what to make of it all, I have to trust that the Lord loves all of us.”