Race in the Pearl of Great Price

The Book of Moses and the Book of Abraham in the Pearl of Great Price are inspiring Latter-day Saint scripture, but what do they say about race? Do they align with what other ancient texts say?

What does the Pearl of Great Price say about race?

In its recounting of the Genesis story, the Book of Moses uses the words "black" and "blackness" in association with two groups of people: the "children of Canaan" and the "seed of Cain."[1] The Book of Abraham discusses what might be that first group of people, but doesn't mention "blackness."[2]

Race is not referenced in the other parts of the Pearl of Great Price—the Book of Abraham facsimiles,[3] the Articles of Faith, Joseph Smith—Matthew, and Joseph Smith—History.

What does the Book of Moses say about race?

Chapter seven of the Book of Moses says a "blackness came upon all the children of Canaan" and also that "the seed of Cain were black."[4] However, it is unclear whether this "blackness" refers to race. Moses 7 reports that the seed of Cain[BIO] was separated from the seed of Adam[BIO][5] and that Enoch[BIO] was not to preach to the people of Canaan.[6]

So what does the Book of Moses mean by "blackness" and "black"?

The Book of Moses was given by revelation to Joseph Smith,[BIO][7] and he did not give an explanation for these terms.

"Blackness" and "black" could refer to skin color.[8] It might also refer to countenance, which was common in ancient texts.[9] Or it could refer to people of African ancestry, as that usage was common in nineteenth-century America.[10] It might be referring to a non-literal "spiritual blackness,"[11] or it could be referring to something else entirely.[12]

Did early Church leaders believe African persons descended from Cain?

Yes.[13] In 1842 Joseph Smith referred to Black people in his journal as "the Sons of Cain"[14] and Brigham Young taught in 1849 that "Africans" were "cursed descendants of Cain."[15] The idea that Black people were descended from Cain was a commonly accepted idea throughout nineteenth-century America.[16]

How do ancient Biblical accounts describe Cain's "countenance" after the Lord rejected his sacrifice in Genesis 4:5?

They vary. The earliest fragment of Genesis 4:5 in the Dead Sea Scrolls[17] and the Masoretic Hebrew text of the Old Testament[18] both describe Cain's "countenance falling." Neither account references his skin color. The Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible) does not use the word "black" to describe Cain's countenance[19] nor do the Aramaic Targums.[20]

However, the texts corresponding to Genesis 4:5 in the Syriac Peshitta[21] and the Armenian Adam-book[22]describe the appearance of Cain as black, which could be interpreted to refer to the color black. The Animal Apocalypse of 1 Enoch[23] describes Cain as a "black calf" but does not specifically refer to the events of Genesis 4:5.

Ancient texts related to Genesis 4:5

Approximate date text was written or translated[24]

Approximate date of manuscript[25]

Ancient text and translationNotes

800–600 B.C.E.

1008 C.E.

Masoretic Hebrew text:[26]

לְקַיִן מְאֹד, וַיִּפְּלוּ פָּנָיו

English translation: And Cain's face fell greatly.

Does not indicate "blackness."

800–600 B.C.E.

30–68 C.E.

4Q2 Genesis Hebrew text:[27]

לְקַיִן מְאֹד, וַיִּפְּלוּ פָּנָיו

English translation: And Cain's countenance fell greatly.

The text is fragmented and incomplete, but it does not seem to indicate blackness.

300s B.C.E.

200s C.E.

Greek Septuagint text:[28]

καὶ ἐλύπησε[ν] τὸν Καιν λίαν καὶ συνέπεσε(ν) τῷ προσώπῳ English translation: And Cain was exceedingly sorrowful, and his countenance fell.

Does not use "black" to describe Cain.

300–200 B.C.E.

1600s C.E.

1 Enoch "Animal Apocalypse" Ge'ez text:[29] እንበለ እንሥአ ለእምከ እድና ርኢኩ በራእይ በምስካብየ ወናሁ ወጽአ ላህም እምድር ወኮነ ዝኩ ላህም ፀዐዳ ወእምድኅረሁ ወጽአት ጣዕዋ አንስቲያዊት አሐ ቲ ወምስሌሃ ወጽአ ካልእ ጣዕዋ ወ ፩ እምኔሆሙ ኮነ ጸሊመ ወ ፩ ቀይሐ

English translation: Before I took thy mother Ednâ, I saw in a vision on my couch, and behold, a bullock came out of the earth, and this bullock was white; and after him there came a female of the same species, and together with this one came other cattle, one of them was black and one red.

Describes Cain as a "black calf," and Abel as a "red calf."

35–120 C.E.

1100–1200 C.E.

Targum Onkelos Aramaic text:[30]

וּתקֵיף לְקַיִן לַחדָא וְאִתכְבִישׁוּ אַפוֹהִי

English translation: And it was very hard for Cain, and his face was subdued.

This Targum does not specify that Cain's face was black, merely that it was "subdued" (kbš).

100–400 C.E.

1504 C.E.

Tagum Neofiti Aramaic text:[31]

ובאשׁ לקין לחדה ואישׁתני זיווהון דאפוי

English translation: . . . and Cain was greatly displeased and his countenance changed.

This Targum does not indicate Cain's face was black, merely that it "changed" (šny).

200–1200 C.E.

1590 C.E.

Targum Pseudo-Jonathan Aramaic text:[32] ותקיף לקין לחדא ואיתכבישׁו איקונין דאפוהי

English translation: This grieved Cain very much, and the expression of his face was downcast.

This Targum renders the verse similar to Targum Onkelos but with the addition of a Greek loanword: "expression [eikonon] of his face..."

200s C.E.

Between 400–600 C.E.

Christian Peshitta Syriac text:[33]

ܘܐܬܒܐܣܠܩܐܝܢ܂ܬܒܘܐܬܟܡܪܐܦܘܗܝ ܘܗ

English translation: And Cain was very displeased and his face became sad/became blackened (ܬܟܡܪ; tkmr)-

Describes Cain's experience as "to be sad or to become blackened."

400s C.E.

Between 800–1200 C.E.

Armenian Adam-book text:[34]

կարտիւ եհար զԿայենի երեսն եւ սեւացոյց իբրեւ զգործելի, եւ այնպէս մնաց երեսն սեւ: English translation: He beat Cain’s face with hail, which blackened like coal, and thus he remained with a black face.

Describes Cain's face as "blackened."

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How do ancient Biblical accounts describe the mark or sign that the Lord set on Cain in the last part of Genesis 4:15?

None of the ancient translations and commentaries on Genesis 4:15 describe the "mark" or "sign" that God placed on Cain as black skin. (See table below.)

Ancient texts related to the mark or sign of Cain described in Genesis 4:15

Approximate date text was written or translated[35]

Approximate date of manuscript[36]

Ancient text and translation


800–600 B.C.E.

1008 C.E.

Masoretic Hebrew text:[37]

וַיָּשֶׂם יְהוָה לְקַיִן אוֹת לְבִלְתִּי הַכּוֹת־אֹתוֹ כָּל־מֹצְאוֹ

English translation:[38] And the LORD set a mark upon Cain, lest any finding him, should kill him.

The Hebrew term 'ot (אוֹת) may be understood as an outwardly visible mark or sign of divine protection.[39][40]

300s B.C.E.

200s C.E.

Greek Septuagint text:[41]

καὶ ἔθετο κύριος ὁ θεὸς σημεῗον τῷ Καιν τοῦ μὴ ἀνελεῗν αὐτὸν πάντα τὸν εὑρίσκοντα αὐτόν English translation:[42] And the Lord God set a sign upon Cain that no one that found him might slay him.

The Greek term σημεῖον means a sign, mark, or token.

35–120 C.E.

1100–1200 C.E.

Targum Onkelos Aramaic text:[43]

וְשַוִי יוי לְקַיִן אָתָא בְדִיל דְלָא לְמִקטַל יָתֵיה כֹל דְיִשכְחִינֵיה

English translation:[44] And the Lord set unto Kain a sign, lest any one who found him should kill him.

The Aramaic text parallels the Masoretic Hebrew text.

100–400 C.E.

1504 C.E.

Targum Neofiti Aramaic text:[45]

ושוי ייי לקין סימן דלא יקטול יתיה כל מן די יארע יתיה׃

English translation:[46] And the Lord placed a sign on Cain so that anyone who might meet him would not kill him.

The Aramaic text parallels the Masoretic Hebrew text.

200–1200 C.E.

1590 C.E.

Targum Pseudo-Jonathan Aramaic text:[47] ורשם ייי על אפי דקין אתא מן שמא רבא ויקירא בגין דלא למיקטול יתיה כל דישכחוניה באיסתכלותיה ביה

English translation:[48] Then the Lord traced on Cain's face a letter of the great and glorious Name, so that anyone who would find him, upon seeing it on him, would not kill him.

The "Name" may refer to the name of God.[49]

200s C.E.

Between 400–600 C.E.

Christian Peshitta Syriac text:[50]

ܬܐ ܒܩܐܝܢ ܕܠܐ ܢܩܛܠܝܘܗܝ ܟܠ ܡ̇ܢ ܕܡܫܟܚ ܠܗ.

English translation:[51] And LORD JEHOVAH laid a sign on Qayn, so that no one who finds him would kill him.

Early Syrian Christians saw the "sign" of Cain as a means of divine protection.[52]

400 C.E.

1512 C.E.

Genesis Rabbah Hebrew text: [53]

וַיֹאמֶר לוֹ ה' לָכֵן כָּל הֹרֵג קַיִן (בראשית ד, טו), רַבִּי יְהוּדָה וְרַבִּי נְחֶמְיָה. רַבִּי יְהוּדָה אוֹמֵר נִתְכַּנְסוּ בְּהֵמָה חַיָּה וָעוֹף לִתְבֹּעַ דָּמוֹ שֶׁל הֶבֶל, אָמַר לָהֶן לָכֶן אֲנִי אוֹמֵר כָּל הוֹרֵג קַיִן יֵהָרֵג. אָמַר רַבִּי לֵוִי בָּא נָחָשׁ הַקַּדְמוֹנִי לִתְבֹּעַ דִּינוֹ שֶׁל הֶבֶל, אָמַר לוֹ הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא לָכֵן אֲנִי אוֹמֵר כָּל הוֹרֵג קַיִן יֵהָרֵג. רַבִּי נְחֶמְיָה אָמַר לֹא כְּדִינָן שֶׁל רוֹצְחָנִין דִּינוֹ שֶׁל קַיִן, קַיִן הָרַג וְלֹא הָיָה לוֹ מִמִּי לִלְמֹד, מִכָּאן וָאֵילָךְ כָּל הוֹרֵג קַיִן יֵהָרֵג. (בראשית ד, טו): וַיָּשֶׂם ה' לְקַיִן אוֹת, רַבִּי יְהוּדָה וְרַבִּי נְחֶמְיָה. רַבִּי יְהוּדָה אָמַר הִזְרִיחַ לוֹ גַּלְגַּל חַמָּה, אָמַר רַבִּי נְחֶמְיָה לְאוֹתוֹ רָשָׁע הָיָה מַזְרִיחַ לוֹ הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא גַּלְגַּל חַמָּה, אֶלָּא מְלַמֵּד שֶׁהִזְרִיחַ לוֹ הַצָּרַעַת, הֵיךְ מָה דְאַתְּ אָמַר (שמות ד, ח): וְהָיָה אִם לֹא יַאֲמִינוּ לָךְ וְלֹא יִשְׁמְעוּ לְקֹל הָאֹת וגו'. רַב אָמַר כֶּלֶב מָסַר לוֹ. אַבָּא יוֹסֵי בֶּן קֵסָרִי אָמַר קֶרֶן הִצְמִיחַ לוֹ. לָךְ

English translation:[54] "And the Lord put a mark [on Cain, lest any who came upon him should kill him]" (Gen. 4:15):

R. Judah said, "He made the orb of the sun shine for him."[55]

Said to him R. Nehemiah, "Do you think that for that wicked man God would make the orb of the sun shine? Rather he made saraat [leprosy] break out on him. . ."

Rab said, "He gave him a dog." [That is the sign of Cain.]

Abba Yose said, "He made a horn grow on him."

In this interpretation, a dog may serve to signal the arrival of attackers and a horn might be used to ward them off.[56][57]

400s C.E.

Between 800–1200 C.E.

Armenian Adam-book text:[58]

Մէկ պատոլՀասն այն է, որ երկու կոտօշ բոլսսւլ ի վերայ գլխոյն

English translation: [59] The first punishment was this; that two horns sprouted upon his head.

The physical indication of Cain's "mark" was the growth of two horns upon his head.

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What does the Book of Abraham say about race?

It says that Ham, Pharaoh, and the Egyptians were descendants of the people of Canaan,[60] but does not specify that they were Black.

The Canaanites of the Book of Abraham may or may not be the people of Canaan described in the Book of Moses as having had a "blackness [come] upon all [them]."[61]

An 1865 engraving of Noah cursing Canaan by Gustave Doré.

Did early Church leaders believe African persons are descended from Ham?

Yes, nineteenth and early twentieth-century apostles and prophets have stated that those of African descent were the descendants of Ham.[62]

What do ancient Biblical accounts say about the appearance of Ham?

Some ancient accounts seem to indicate that Ham was Black, while others do not. The Masoretic text of the Hebrew Bible does not seem to indicate that Ham was Black.[63] Philo of Alexandria also does not seem to indicate that Ham was Black.[64] However, the Animal Apocalypse[65] and the Palestinian Talmud[66] do suggest that Ham was Black.

Ancient texts describing Ham.

Approximate date text was written or translated[67]

Approximate date of Manuscript[68]

Ancient text and translationNotes

800–600 B.C.E.

100 C.E.

Dead Sea Scrolls Hebrew text:[69]

וַיִּיקֶץ נֹחַ, מִיֵּינוֹ; וַיֵּדַע, אֵת אֲשֶׁר-עָשָׂה לוֹ בְּנוֹ הַקָּטָן

וַיֹּאמֶר, אָרוּר כְּנָעַן: עֶבֶד עֲבָדִים, יִהְיֶה לְאֶחָיו

וַיֹּאמֶר, בָּרוּךְ יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵי שֵׁם; וִיהִי כְנַעַן, עֶבֶד לָמוֹ

English translation: And Noah awoke from his wine and knew what his youngest son had done. And he said: Cursed be Canaan, he will be, for his brothers, a slave of slaves! But he did not curse Ham, but only his son, for God had blessed the sons of Noah.

Indicates that Ham is not cursed, but Canaan is cursed as being a "slave of slaves."

800–600 B.C.E.

1008 C.E.

Masoretic Hebrew text:[70]

וַיַּרְא חָם אֲבִי כְנַעַן אֵת עֶרְוַת אָבִיו וַיַּגֵּד לִשְׁנֵֽי־אֶחָיו בַּחֽוּץ

English translation: And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brethren without.

The text for Genesis 9:22 does not specify anything about skin color.

300–100 century B.C.E.

300–100 B.C.E.

Genesis Apocryphon Aramaic text:[71]

Col 12: ו[בני חם כוש ומצרי]ן ופוט וכנען ובנן נקבן שבע

Col 17: כול נגאותא דיליד לוד ובין

[…]… ולמשך …[…]…

[…]… בני חם

English translation:

Col 12: [And the sons of Ham were Kush, Mitzrai]n, Put, and Canaan, as well as seven daughters.

Col 17: inlet of the sea that lies next to the portion of the descendants of Ham

There are two mentions of Ham and neither of them describes his appearance.

300s B.C.E.

100–400 C.E.

Septuagint Greek text:[72]

καὶ εἶδε Χὰμ ὁ πατὴρ Χαναὰν τὴν γύμνωσιν τοῦ πατρὸς

English translation: And Ham the father of Canaan saw the nakedness of his father, and he went out and told his two brothers without.

The text uses Χ to spell Ham's name.[73] While some commentators[74] have tied Ham's name to the word for "black" in Hebrew or "servant" in Egyptian, the name Ham is of unknown origin.[75]

300–200 B.C.E.

1600s C.E.

Animal Apocalypse Ge'ez text:[76]

ወውእቱ ላህም ዘተወልደ እምኔሁ ወለደ ሐራውያ ገዳም ጸሊመ ወበግዐ ፀዐዳ ወውእቱ ሐራውያ ገዳም ወለደ አኅርወ ብዙኃነ ወውእቱ በግዕ ወለደ ፲ ወ ፪ አባግዐ

English translation: But that bull which was born from him begat a black wild boar and a white sheep; and this wild boar begat many boars, but that sheep produced twelve sheep.

Appears to identify "Ham" with "blackness," which may indicate either "evil" or actual skin color.[77]

100s C.E.

300–500 C.E.

Philo of Alexandria Greek text:[78]

Τίνος δὴ ταῦθ᾿ εἵνεκα εἶπον ἢ τοῦ διδάξαι χάριν, ὅτι ὁ μὲν υἱὸς τοῦ Νῶε Χὰμ ἠρεμούσης κακίας ἐστὶν ὄνομα, ὁ δὲ υἱωνὸς ἤδη καὶ κινουμένης; ἑρμηνεύεται γὰρ θέρημ μὲν Χάμ, σάλος δὲ Χαναάν. θέρμη δὲ ἐν μὲν σώματι πυρετὸν ἐμφαίνει, κακίαν.

English translation: These things were said for the purpose of showing that Ham the son of Noah is a name for evil in the quiet state and the grandson Canaan for the same when it flowed into active movement. In actuality, Ham is, by interpretation, “heat” and Canaan, “restlessness.”

Philo of Alexandria first associates the name Ham [ham] with the Hebrew word for "heat"[hwm] despite these two words probably not being connected.[79] He then connects "Canaan's curse" with "Ham's curse."

300–700 C.E.

300–700 C.E.

Babylonian Talmud Hebrew text:[80]

חם לקה בעורו

English translation: Ham (חם) was afflicted in his skin ( בעורו)

The curse of Ham impacted his skin, but it is unclear if this refers to skin color or something else.

400–500 C.E.

1289 C.E.

Palestinian Talmud Hebrew text:[81]

חַם יָצָא מְפוּחָם

English translation: Ham exited [from the ark] charcoal colored.

No reference to how or why Ham was charcoal-colored.

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Why have biblical commentators associated Ham with people of African descent?

The Hebrew word חָם (hām) means "black" or "hot."[82] Many commentators, ancient and modern, have interpreted this to be a reference to the color of Ham's skin.[83]

However, one of the earliest biblical commentators, Philo of Alexandria, connected the name Ham with heat in the context of "heat is a sign of fever in the body and of evil in the soul."[84]

If the oldest Biblical accounts don't seem to refer to literal skin color, does that discredit the idea that these "curses" were dark skin?

Possibly. Proximity in time to the recorded event is an important part of evaluating a historical document, but even the oldest available biblical texts are still centuries, even millennia, removed from the traditional dating of the events of Genesis.

If the oldest Biblical accounts don't refer to skin color, but Latter-day revealed scripture and teachings from Joseph Smith teach that the "seed of Cain" were Black, what does this mean?

It could mean a number of things for both Joseph's role as a revelator and the Pearl of Great Price as a source of revealed information. (See table below.)

Table of assumptions and corresponding explanations


Possible Explanation or Conclusion

Revelations and inspired translations are perfectly received by their receipents.

The Pearl of Great Price restored the lost meaning of the Genesis story and the "seed of Cain" are Black.

The process of translation and revelation are imperfect and are influenced by the biases and culture of the receipent.

The Pearl of Great Price was filtered through Joseph's worldview and influenced by the common tradition that the "seed of Cain" are Black.

There is no such thing as revelation or inspired translation.

The Pearl of Great Price is a work of religious fiction and reflected the biases and traditions that Joseph held.

Was the Book of Moses or the Book of Abraham used to justify the temple/priesthood ban?

Yes and no. The documentary record does not contain direct evidence that the Pearl of Great Price was used to justify the ban when it was made public in 1852,[85] but up until 1978 when the ban was lifted, various Church leaders occasionally referenced the Book of Moses and/or Abraham when speaking of the priesthood ban.[86]

Does the Church condemn racism?

Yes. The Church disavows all racism including the theory "that black skin is a sign of divine disfavor or curse."[87]

The Facts

  • The Book of Moses says that a "blackness came upon the people of Canaan" and "the seed of Cain were black."

  • The earliest texts seem to refer to Cain as having a sad countenance, later texts seem to refer to his skin color.

  • Joseph Smith referred to Black men as "sons of Cain" and "seed of Canaan."

  • The Book of Abraham says Ham is a descendant of Canaan, and some nineteenth and twentieth-century Church leaders have taught that Black people are descendants of Ham.

  • Ancient texts describe Ham in various ways, but the etymology of Ham is unclear.

  • The Church disavows theories that indicate that black skin is a sign of disfavor with God.

Our Take

Latter-day Saints celebrate the Book of Moses and the Book of Abraham in the Pearl of Great Price as inspired scripture. These books may also contain references to race. Do these scriptures claim that God cursed people with dark skin? Have these books been used to justify racist practices in the Church? Do they agree with other instances of the same story in the Bible and other ancient texts?

In the nineteenth century it was commonly believed amongst Protestants that Black people were descended from Cain and/or Ham from the Genesis story. Early manuscripts of the Genesis story from various ancient sources seem to be in conflict about this topic, but the earliest manuscripts do not seem to reference the color of Cain or Ham's skin.

The Pearl of Great Price contains a version of the Genesis story in the Book of Abraham and Book of Moses, but these books do not give clear statements on African origins or what the term "black" or "blackness" mean, or whether skin color had anything to do with a "curse of Cain" or Ham.

The earliest sources on the priesthood and temple ban do not use the scriptures found in the Pearl of Great Price to justify the policy — but these scriptures were occasionally referenced in the twentieth century in connection with the ban.

It is both uncomfortable and important to consider the ways these texts and scriptures engage with race. As members of the Church and children of God, we have a responsibility to proclaim love for all God's children and denounce racism wherever it is found. While we may not fully understand the meaning of some references in the Book of Abraham and Book of Moses, we know enough to love all of God's children.

What's Your Take?

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  • Derek C
    Personally, I believe that the text reflect's Joseph's personal beliefs. It was pretty common to justify racial superiority through scripture at the time.