Black Saints and the Priesthood (Joseph Smith era)

Key benchmarks in the history of Black Latter-day Saints and priesthood ordination during Joseph Smith's lifetime

June 1829

Joseph Smith[BIO] translates 2 Nephi 26:33: "The Lord . . . denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; . . . and all are alike unto God."[1]

December 1830–May 1831

"Black" Peter Kerr,[BIO] the first Black Latter-day Saint, joins the Church in Kirtland, Ohio.[2]

December 1830

Joseph Smith's translation of Moses 7:22 states "the seed of Cain were black."[3]

February–March 1831

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."[4]

July 1, 1833

William W. Phelps[BIO] writes that the Church in Missouri has "no special rule" with regards to admitting Black people into the Church.[5]

March 1835

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."[6]

August 1835

Doctrine and Covenants is published with Section 102 directing missionaries not to teach or baptize slaves without permission from their masters.[7]

March 31, 1836

Joseph Smith signs a ministerial certificate confirming the ordination of Elijah Able[BIO] as an elder.[8]

April 1836

Joseph Smith describes Black slaves as the "sons of Canaan" and advocates a non-interference approach to slavery.[9]

July 18, 1836

Governor Daniel Dunklin[BIO] warns the Latter-day Saints that they must prove that they are not "abolitionists."[10]

October 1840

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."[11]

March 1842

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."[12]

ca. 1843–1844

William Smith[BIO] ordains Q. Walker Lewis[BIO] to the priesthood in Massachusetts.[13]

ca. 1841–1844

Joseph and Emma Smith[BIO] offer to have Jane Manning James[BIO] "adopted to them as their child" when she lived with them in Nauvoo.[14]

Did Black members of the Church receive the priesthood during Joseph Smith's lifetime?

Yes. Two Black men—Elijah Able[BIO][15] and Q. Walker Lewis[BIO][16] 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.[17]

Joseph T. Ball[BIO] was probably biracial[18] and held priesthood office[19] although he was listed as white on census records[20] and considered white by his contemporary peers.[21]

Weren't there several more Black Saints ordained during Joseph Smith's lifetime?

Probably not. Some historians have speculated that "Black" Peter Kerr[BIO] may have also held priesthood office;[22] however, there is no documentary evidence indicating that he was ordained.

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[23] and participated in baptisms for the dead in Nauvoo.[24] Based on available records, no other Black Saints participated in the temple ordinances during Joseph's lifetime.[25]

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."[26]

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.[27] However, Latter-day Saint leaders later placed various restrictions on baptizing Black members due to local circumstances related to slavery.[28]

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.[29]

However, there is one later reference from William Appleby to a Church policy of priesthood restriction during Joseph Smith's time as prophet.[30] There are also later accounts reporting that Joseph taught privately about a priesthood restriction.[31]

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?

Yes and no. Like most people at the time, Joseph Smith believed that Black people were descendants of Canaan and Cain.[BIO][32]

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.[33][34] However, there are no accounts of Joseph's contemporaries using scripture as a rationale for priesthood restriction during his lifetime.[35]

How did early Church membership feel about Black people?

Early Church members came from a variety of national backgrounds, but they were predominantly white[36] and participated in the attitudes of general white society at the time.[37]

Because there were relatively few Black members among the early Saints,[38] 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,[39] but they felt conflicted about slavery.[40]

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.[41] In the 1830s, he advocated for a neutral position on slavery[42] and taught that the Bible condoned it[43] but also received a revelation that no man should be in bondage.[44] He later strongly advocated for an end to slavery.[45]

On a personal level, there are accounts of his kindness and sympathy to Black people,[46] but there is one known record of Joseph using a racial slur.[47] Joseph and Emma invited Jane Manning James,[BIO] a Black woman, to board with his family,[48] and Jane said that Emma had offered to have her "adopted to them as their child."[49]

A photograph of Jane Manning James, ca. 1862-1873.

The Facts

  • At least two Black Saints, and possibly three, were ordained to the priesthood during Joseph Smith's lifetime.

  • There are no known firsthand statements from Joseph Smith about priesthood or temple restrictions for Black Saints.

  • Elijah Able was the only Black Saint known to have participated in temple ordinances during Joseph Smith's lifetime.

  • In statements and scripture, Joseph Smith described Black people as "sons of Canaan" and "sons of Cain."

  • Joseph Smith translated the Book of Abraham, which describes a lineage-based priesthood restriction related to the descendants of Canaan.

  • Beginning in 1879, Church leaders and other individuals recorded recollections that Joseph Smith had at some point begun to teach privately about priesthood restrictions for Black Saints.

  • In the 1830s, Joseph Smith held a neutral position on slavery and used the Bible to justify this position.

  • In the 1840s, Joseph Smith advocated for the abolition of slavery.

  • The few historical records available indicate that Joseph was kind to Black Saints, but also show that he maintained racist beliefs and views that were common in the nineteenth century.

  • The 1840 First Presidency stated that the Nauvoo Temple was to be a place of worship for people "of every color," specifically mentioning Africans.

Our Take

Race and the priesthood and temple restrictions is a heavy topic, especially through our modern lens. Racism has harmed (and continues to harm) Black communities, and the priesthood and temple restrictions were part of this.

It can be troubling that Joseph Smith held some racist beliefs—especially when others during that time challenged them. We cannot excuse his or anyone's racism. He was flawed, but he was also a prophet of God. This can be difficult to reconcile.

Even prophets see the world (both spiritual and temporal) through a lens of their experiences, cultural context, and moral imperfections. This does not excuse them, but allowing for repentance and change leaves room for growth, even in our leaders.

It’s important to remember that the Church disavows the racism of the past and condemns all racism now. Our Heavenly Father loves all His children, and we need to love them, too.

What's Your Take?

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These takes are curated for a general audience and may contain minor edits when posted.
  • W. Parkin
    Very informative and goes to show what kind of person Our Prophet was.
  • D Smith
    I just want to say thanks for creating this website and your efforts to give truth, even when it goes against convenient norms. Us saints have become too casual in our knowledge of the facts and that's why so many can't handle it. We're a true church with a difficult history.
  • Dan
    If you want to answer the difficult questions, I think that the history of discrimination AFTER J.S. is more problematic. Young's thoughts on the topic while prophet, and the ban for over a decade after the Civil Rights movement are where many have bigger questions.
  • Bret
    I grew up as a boy in the 60s, so I have seen how people were raised with misconceptions to races, which carried over into society norms. In 1830s and 1840s it was even more different, and it is important not to take our current cultural lens to judge an era.
  • 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.