Black Saints and the Priesthood (Brigham Young/Early Utah era)

Timeline (1845–1903)

April 1, 1845

After recounting the story of Noah's[BIO] cursing of Canaan,[BIO] Elder John Taylor[BIO] teaches that "a black skin . . . has ever been a curse that has followed an apostate of the holy priesthood."[1]

April 27, 1845

Elder Orson Hyde[BIO] teaches that neutral pre-mortal spirits were placed in Black bodies in mortality and "the negro or African race" was the cursed lineage of Canaan.[2]

December 24, 1845

Sarah Ann Mode Hofheintz,[BIO] like some other biracial Saints who received temple blessings,[3] was listed as Black in early public records and as white in later ones.[4] She is endowed and sealed in Nauvoo.[5]

March 1847

Brigham Young[BIO] expresses sympathy for a Black member,[6] William McCary,[BIO] who felt persecuted.[7] Young remarks, "It's nothing to do with blood, for of one blood has God made all flesh."[8]

April 1847

Parley P. Pratt[BIO] articulates reasons for a priesthood restriction in language similar to the Book of Abraham.[9]

May 1847

William I. Appleby[BIO] praised the example of Walker Lewis,[BIO] a Black Elder, but also expressed his understanding that the ordination of Black Saints was "contrary to the order of the Church."[10]

December 1847

Brigham Young expresses concern that interracial marriage may result in widespread sterility,[11] consistent with some nineteenth-century scientific views.[12]

February 1849

Newly-called apostle Lorenzo Snow[BIO] "presented the case of the African for a chance of redemption" to Brigham Young at a council meeting.[13] Brigham Young responds that the Lord gave Cain's descendants blackness as a punishment for killing Abel.[BIO][14]

February 1852

Brigham Young declares, as a prophet and apostle of Jesus Christ, that Black people are the descendants of Cain and are restricted from the priesthood.[15] He said he was powerless to remove the restriction; only God could do it.[16]

October 1861

Moroni Able, son of Black Elder and priesthood holder Elijah Able,[BIO] is reported to have been ordained to the priesthood on his deathbed.[17]

May 1, 1873

Samuel D. Chambers,[BIO] a Black Saint, is appointed as an assistant deacon, though he didn't receive the priesthood.[18] Samuel's wife, Amanda Leggroan Chambers,[BIO] also a Black Saint, serves as a "deaconess" in the Relief Society.[19]

September 3, 1875

With Brigham Young's approval, eight Black Saints serve as proxies for baptisms and confirmations in the Salt Lake Endowment house.[20]

circa June 1879

Elijah Able asks to be endowed and sealed to his wife, but President John Taylor[BIO] denies the request.[21]

December 27, 1884

Recalling an invitation from Joseph and Emma, Jane Manning James writes John Taylor and asks to be "adopted to them as a Child."[22]

June 16, 1888

Jane Manning James receives a temple recommend from her stake president, Angus M. Cannon,[BIO] authorizing her to perform proxy baptisms for her relatives.[23] In 1888 and 1894, she is baptized for deceased family members in the Logan and Salt Lake Temples.[24]

February 7, 1890

Jane Manning James again requests her adoption to Joseph and Emma.[25] She also asks to be endowed and sealed to Quaku Walker Lewis[BIO] who had died in 1856.[26]

May 18, 1894

Jane Manning James is "attached" as a "Servitor" to the Prophet Joseph Smith in the Salt Lake Temple.[27]

October 16, 1894

Jane Manning James is reportedly unsatisfied with the 1894 temple ceremony.[28] She requests sealing blessings from Wilford Woodruff, but her request was not granted.[29]

August 31, 1903

Jane Manning James makes a final unsuccessful request for temple blessings.[30]

How soon after the death of Joseph Smith did public discussion of the priesthood and temple ban begin to come up?

Within a year of Joseph Smith's[BIO] death in 1844,[31] Apostle John Taylor[BIO] wrote of how Ham[BIO] "dishonored the holy priesthood" and of the curse that followed his descendants.[32] In 1847, Parley P. Pratt[BIO] referred to William McCary,[BIO] a Black Saint, as someone who had the "blood of Ham in him" and "cursed as regards to the Priesthood."[33]

When did Brigham Young begin to teach about the priesthood and temple ban on Black Latter-day Saints?

In 1852, Brigham Young[BIO] publicly announced that Black Saints could not hold the priesthood.[34] However, he privately discussed with Church leaders issues relating to interracial marriage in 1847[35] and the priesthood restriction in 1849.[36]

Was Brigham Young okay with Black Latter-day Saints having the priesthood before that?

Yes, possibly. In March 1847, he referred to Quaku Walker Lewis,[BIO] a Black priesthood holder, as “one of the best Elders we have."[37]

What were the stated reasons for the restrictions?

In 1847, Elder Parley P. Pratt[BIO] referenced the curse of Ham as the reason for priesthood restriction.[38] In February 1849, Brigham Young specifically mentioned a priesthood restriction as a consequence of the "curse of Cain."[39]

Could any of these reasons be traced back to Joseph Smith?

Possibly, but there are no records contemporary with Joseph that indicate he taught or established a policy that Black Saints were to be restricted from the priesthood or temple ordinances.

However, Joseph Smith viewed Black people as descendants of Cain[40] and subject to the curse of Canaan.[41] Joseph Smith's translation of the Book of Abraham described a lineage-based priesthood ban.[42] Decades later, some Church leaders also recalled him teaching privately about a priesthood restriction for Black people.[43]

Was the restriction based on a revelation?

Possibly. In February 1852, Brigham Young said, “If there never was a prophet, or apostle of Jesus Christ spoke it before, I tell you . . . they [Black people] cannot bear rule in the priesthood.”[44] However, modern scholars have debated whether the restriction was based on revelation or not.[45]

In the 1978 Official Declaration, it states that "Church records offer no clear insights into the origins" of the ban, but affirmed the belief of Church leaders that "a revelation from God was needed to alter this practice."[46]

Did Brigham expect the ban to be lifted someday?

Yes. Brigham felt he was powerless to lift priesthood restrictions of his own accord.[47] He instead taught that the "time will come when [Black Saints] will have the privilege of all we have the privilege of, and more."[48]

Lorenzo Snow also thought the ban might be lifted at some future point.[49]

Did anyone teach that the priesthood restriction was related to the pre-mortal existence?

Yes. In 1853, Orson Pratt[BIO] wrote an essay that suggested that Black people "were cursed, pertaining to the priesthood" and were less faithful in the pre-mortal existence.[50] Emily Spencer[BIO] also wrote a poem in 1880 that referenced this concept.[51]

Did racism play a major role in the implementation of the priesthood ban?

Possibly. Church leaders used racist rhetoric when explaining the priesthood and temple restrictions,[52] and the restriction itself reflected racist policies and attitudes common to nineteenth-century America.[53]

Were there any other factors that could have contributed to the priesthood ban?

Possibly. Brigham Young, along with many white American nineteenth-century scientists,[54] believed that interracial marriage would produce widespread infertility.[55]One went so far as to say that interracial marriage could result eventually in the extinction of the human race.[56]

Brigham also believed that interracial marriages would make their descendants ineligible for priesthood and temple blessings.[57]

Did any other churches in America have a similar policy?

Yes. Many white American Protestant congregations segregated out Black membership, prompting Black members to form independent congregations.[58] White Protestant churches frequently banned Black people from positions of leadership.[59] However, several white-dominant churches (e.g., Catholics, Presbyterians, RLDS) did ordain Black members.[60]

Was this policy motivated by a desire to be more like mainstream Protestant churches?

No, probably not. The Church publicly embraced polygamy at this time, which was hugely unpopular[61] and the Saints were also leaving the United States.[62] It seems unlikely that the Church would have implemented the priesthood and temple ban to gain acceptance with mainstream Christianity.

How did Black members of the Church feel about this policy?

Some Black members accepted it and stayed faithful,[63] and others left the faith.[64] The petitions of Elijah Able and Jane Manning to receive temple ordinances were repeatedly denied.[65] However, they remained faithful until the end of their lives.[66]

Did anyone oppose or question this policy?

Occasionally. In 1849, Lorenzo Snow[BIO] asked when the policy would be lifted.[67] There are also some council meeting minutes towards the end of the nineteenth century where questions about these restrictions were brought up for discussion.[68]

Elijah Able and Jane Manning James, among others, challenged their exclusion from priesthood blessings.[69]

A photograph of Samuel and Amanda Chambers, ca. 1900.

Were any members disciplined for opposing the priesthood restriction policy?

No, probably not. There are no known records of discipline for opposing the priesthood restriction. However, Church disciplinary records are generally closed, so research on disciplinary actions is limited.[70]

Were any members disciplined for interracial marriage?

Yes. There were at least two instances of discipline for interracial marriage. In 1856 Centerville, Delaware, William Knopp[BIO] married a plural wife of African ancestry.[71] His branch president excommunicated him for "contempt of council" and “mingling with the Seed of Cain.”[72] Then in 1889, Hyrum B. Barton[BIO] was excommunicated for his marriage to Laura Jane Berry.[73]

How did they determine who was Black to enforce the ban?

Physical appearance,[74] admissions,[75] and possibly "impressions."[76]

Did any African-descended members that "passed for white" receive priesthood or temple ordinances?

Yes. Some individuals with African-descended ancestry who "passed for white," listed below, were endowed and sealed. There is no known record of any of the children of these couples experiencing priesthood or temple restrictions.

Date of Endowment

Where

Endowed and Sealed African-Descended Saints

December 24, 1845

Nauvoo

Sarah Ann Mode Hofheintz,[BIO] wife of Peter Hofheintz[BIO][77]

April 20, 1861

Salt Lake Endowment House

Johanna Dorothea Louisa Langeveld Provis,[BIO] wife of Richard Samuel Provis[BIO][78]

June 13, 1863

Salt Lake Endowment House

Rebecca Henrietta Foscue Bentley Meads,[BIO] wife of Nathan Meads[BIO][79]

April 8, 1903

Salt Lake Temple

Harriet Elnora Burchard Church,[BIO] wife of Thomas Holiday Church[80]

Are there any Black members that "passed for white" that were denied priesthood or temple ordinances?

Yes. In 1885, an unsuccessful request for sealing to a white man was made on behalf of Laura Jane Berry,[BIO] an African-descended member who “passed for white."[81]

In addition, although he did not "pass for white," Nelson Ritchie[BIO] claimed Cherokee heritage.[82] His bishop, John Whitaker, denied Ritchie temple ordinances as he "felt that he had negro blood in him."[83] However, Ritchie was posthumously endowed and sealed a decade after his death—which was not generally allowed.[84]

Did Joseph Smith or Brigham Young revoke Elijah Able's priesthood ordination?

No, probably not. Some late second and thirdhand recollections claimed that Joseph Smith revoked his priesthood, but the historical evidence seems to contradict this report.[85]

Were there any other deliberate exceptions in the early Utah era where men known to have Black ancestry were ordained to the priesthood?

Yes. Moroni Able,[BIO] a son of Elijah Able, was reported to have been ordained to the priesthood on his deathbed.[86] Deathbed priesthood ordination, later discouraged, was a known practice at the time.[87]

Were there ever any exceptions made for Black members worshiping in the temple?

Yes. On at least one occasion, Brigham Young authorized a group of Black Saints to perform baptisms for their friends and family in the Endowment House.[88]

Was Brigham Young racist?

Yes. Brigham Young believed that Black people were inferior to white people,[89] described Black people with negative stereotypes,[90] and opposed marriages between Black and white people.[91]

Brigham also said, "we are all the children of one Father, whether we be . . . black or white"[92] and commended the example of Q. Walker Lewis, a Black elder.[93] He also spoke against the mistreatment of slaves, saying that "for their abuse" of enslaved people, "the whites will be cursed, unless they repent."[94]

Were Brigham's successors racist?

Yes. John Taylor and Wilford Woodruff accepted the idea that Black people are descended from Cain, Ham, and/or Canaan;[95] supported the priesthood ban;[96] and may have opposed interracial marriages.[97]

Some People Say . . .

"The priesthood ban was definitely implemented because of racism!"

OR

"The priesthood ban was unfortunate, but was definitely inspired!"

— overheard in Sunday School

The Facts

  • Brigham Young and other Church leaders at the time generally believed that Black people were descendants of Cain, Ham, and Canaan.

  • There are no records contemporary with Joseph that indicate he taught or established a policy that Black Saints were to be restricted from the priesthood or temple ordinances.

  • Some leaders reported decades later that Joseph Smith privately taught about a priesthood restriction for Black people.

  • Beginning in 1847, apostles began teaching that Black Saints could not hold the priesthood.

  • Some prominent white American nineteenth-century scientists believed that interracial marriage (“amalgamation”) would produce widespread infertility.

  • On multiple occasions, Black Saints were allowed to serve as proxies in baptisms for the dead.

  • Some members of families with African-descended ancestry were endowed and sealed because they "passed as white."

  • Some Black Saints petitioned Church presidents for priesthood and temple blessings, but the requests were denied.

  • Brigham Young and his successors taught that God would eventually lift the priesthood restriction.

Our Take

Race and the priesthood and temple restrictions is a heavy topic, especially today. These restrictions have contributed to the harm Black communities in the Church have experienced. Why would Brigham Young and other Church presidents put in place a policy that was unfair and racist?

It can be troubling that Brigham Young and some of his successors held racist beliefs. And it's unclear if the ban was truly directed by revelation or if this was simply directed by Brigham's worldview. In either case, Brigham is not excused for his racist rhetoric, attitudes, and practices towards people of African descent, nor are other Church leaders.

Today, the Church disavows all past racism and condemns all present racism. We should remember Black Saints like Elijah Able, Jane Manning James, and Samuel and Amanda Chambers who showed immense faith in the face of unimaginable circumstances. Our Heavenly Father loves all His children, and it's important we 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.
  • Tommy
    On the whole- good collection of information, but to say Young was racist by today’s standards is presentism and entirely inaccurate. The person writing this essay is likely older than me, and therefore also a racist by the same standard. Was there any contempt in youngsheart? No
  • PK
    Hi, I’m newly joining and learning about our faith. I find that it bothers me a little that there a negative stereotypes but i also know all those things happened in the past in most churches. Today I find more welcome with the LDS saints than any other church I’ve been to.
Footnotes