In connection with Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith, the priesthood ban is getting a lot of attention from the media again.

The most recent turn comes from The Washington Post, where reporter Jason Horowitz interviews Darius Gray and other black Latter-day Saints about their experience with and feelings about the ban. Searching for a theological explanation for the ban, Horowitz contacted BYU associate professor Randy Bott. Horowitz paraphrases Bott:

According to Mormon scriptures, the descendants of Cain, who slew his brother Abel, “were black.” One of Cain’s descendants was Egyptus, a woman Mormons believe was the namesake of Egypt. She married Ham, whose descendants were themselves cursed and, in the view of many Mormons, barred from the priesthood by his father, Noah. Bott points to the Mormon holy text, the Book of Abraham, as suggesting that all of the descendents of Ham and Egyptus were thus black and barred from the priesthood.

Professor Bott’s explanation is an example of how doctrinal folklore continues to be taught by well-meaning members of the Church. Ironically, the dubious “folk doctrine” in question is no longer even relevant, since it was created to explain a Church policy that was reversed nearly thirty-four years ago.

This theory was adopted by early Latter-day Saints from similar beliefs in early American Protestantism that were used to justify slavery. The Saints used it to explain the policy of denying priesthood ordination to those of African descent, a policy for which no revelation or prophetic explanation was ever given.

The idea went something like this: In the premortal existence, certain spirits were set aside to come to Earth through a lineage that was cursed and marked, first by Cain’s murder of his brother and covenant with Satan, and then again later by Ham’s offense against his father Noah. The reasons why this lineage was set apart weren’t clear, but it was speculated they were somehow less valiant than their premortal brethren during the war in heaven. In this life, then, the holy priesthood was to be withheld from all who had had any trace of that lineage.

As neat and coherent as that scenario might seem, the scriptures typically cited in its support cannot logically be interpreted this way unless one starts with the priesthood ban itself and then works backward, looking for scriptures to support a predetermined belief.


Cain (Genesis 4:11–15; Moses 5:23–25, 36–40). Following Cain’s covenant with Satan and murder of Abel, the Lord cursed him that the earth would not yield its strength for him, and that he would be a fugitive and a vagabond. Nothing was said of priesthood. The Lord placed a mark upon him, not as part of the curse, but to protect him from others who would kill him. The mark itself was not described, and there was no indication that it would be passed to his descendents.[1]

Six generations after Cain, Enoch saw a vision of an unspecified future time (Moses 7:4) in which “the seed of Cain were black” (7:22). There is no explanation for this blackness or where it came from; it is not even clear if we are to take it literally or figuratively.[2]


Canaan (Genesis 9:20–27). Ham’s son Canaan, for some unexplained reason, was cursed for his father’s offense against Noah. No change in skin color was mentioned,[3] nor was there any statement on priesthood. According to the Bible, Canaan was the founder of the Canaanite nation (Genesis 10:15–19). The Canaanites were Caucasian, not black, and had no connection with sub-Saharan (black) Africans.[4]

The Hebrew words “Cain” (qayin) and “Canaan” (ke(na’an) are not related; it is a coincidence that they sound alike in English.


Egyptus (Abraham 1:21–27). The Book of Abraham is the only place that any scriptures speak of the priesthood being withheld from any lineage, but even then it is only the specific lineage of the Pharaohs of Egypt, and there is no explanation as to why that lineage could not have the priesthood, or whether the proscription was temporary or permanent, or which other lineages, if any—especially in the modern world—would be covered by that proscription.[5] According to the Bible, Egypt was founded by Mizraim, another son of Ham, and Canaan’s brother (which may be why Abraham 1:21 connects Egypt with the Canaanites). Egyptians, both ancient and modern, were not black Africans, but Northern Africans, culturally related to peoples of the Middle East.


Conclusion. The speculation that modern blacks are the descendants of Cain and Ham is unsupported from the scriptures. In reality we do not know why God allowed the denial of the priesthood to blacks for a time in this dispensation. All we do know is that policy has been reversed by a living prophet.

The “curse of Cain” folk doctrine may have been understandable for our LDS ancestors, but it is neither understandable nor necessary today. The Church is for all God’s children, for “he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female…and all are alike unto God” (2 Nephi 26:33).


[1] See Alma 3:18, where the Amlicites “began to mark themselves in their foreheads, [for] they had come out in open rebellion against God; therefore it was expedient that the curse should fall upon them.”

[2] In the 1840 edition of the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith changed the phrase “white and delightsome” in 2 Nephi 30:6 to read “pure and delightsome,” indicating that “white,” in at least this context, did not refer to literal skin color, but to righteousness.

[3] Before the flood, there was a race of people called the Canaanites upon whom “a blackness came” (Moses 7:7–8). The text does not indicate if the “blackness” was physical or spiritual. The Canaanites mentioned by Abraham lived in modern Palestine (Abraham 2:15), and Abraham did not have access to the record we call the Book of Moses (it had not yet been written), so it’s doubtful there is any connection between the two groups.

[4] If anyone is a candidate for the ancestor of black Africans, it’s Cush, Canaan’s brother, whose people founded what is now known as Ethiopia (Genesis 10:6; see the reference to skin color in Jeremiah 13:23).

[5] Hugh Nibley offered the explanation that the denial of the priesthood to the Pharaonic line had to do with the claim of the priesthood through the matriarchal line (through Egyptus) rather than the patriarchal. See Abraham in Egypt (Deseret Book, 2000 [2nd] ed.), p. 360–61.

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