It’s going to take me a few paragraphs to get there, so here’s advance notice that this post is intended to be a pointer to recent scholarship on how biblical curses associated with the stories of Cain and Ham came to be misinterpreted by some Christians as applying to dark-skinned Africans.
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In 18th and 19th century America, prior to the Civil War, the Cain and Ham curses were interpreted by many Christians as explaining the skin color of black Africans and as justifying the practice of African slavery. After slavery ended, and as late as the 1960s, the curse on Ham continued to be put to work by some Christians to justify ethnic segregation. (1)
Given Mormonism’s geographic beginnings, it’s not much of a surprise to find occurrences of Mormons making the same uses of these stories. For example, the early Mormons swung back and forth between fairly strong abolitionist tendencies to the eventual 1850s legalization of slavery in the Utah Territory. (2) In lobbying for the territorial law, Brigham Young is quoted as stating “In as much as we believe in the Bible, inasmuch as we believe in the ordenances of God, in the Preisthood and order and decrees of God, we must believe in Slavery- The seed of Canaan will inevitably carry the curse [of servitude] which was placed upon them, until the same authority which placed it there, shall see proper to have it removed.” (3)
A hundred years later, when segregation was an issue of national debate, some Mormons matched conservative Southern Christians in justifying American segregation with biblical authority. A prominent example is McConkie’s 1958 Mormon Doctrine, published during the aftermath of nationally prominent desegregation attempts in Little Rock, Arkansas. In its entry on “Caste Systems,” the book expressly approved of ethnic segregation and “caste systems” as originating in the gospel.
Of course, the serious disagreements among Americans in general over slavery and segregation were mirrored within Mormonism: there were Mormon contemporaries of Young and McConkie that didn’t share those men’s views (examples that come to mind include Joseph Smith, Walker Lewis, Sterling McMurrin, Hugh B. Brown, Hugh Nibley, and David O. McKay).
But one peculiarly Mormon function of these two Genesis stories is that some Mormons also used them to justify the ethnicity-based restrictions on temple worship and priesthood membership. Such attempts seem understandable, as members were motivated to discover logic in a policy that could otherwise seem inconsistent with gospel teachings. Joseph Fielding Smith and Bruce R. McConkie were the preachers in our era who most notably put these stories to that use. (4 )
None of the above is news; in analyzing Mormon teachings about ethnicity and lineage, each of Newell Bringhurst, Lester Bush, Arnold Green, and Armand Mauss have pointed out the role of the Cain/Ham teachings in justifying Mormon practices, and Green and Mauss have identified JFS and BRM as the primary forces spreading the teachings among 20th century Mormons. (5) What is new is additional scholarship that supports the scriptural interpretations of those who, like Bush , Mauss, and Nibley in the 1970s, and Lowry Nelson and David O. McKay in the 1950s, felt that the Cain and Ham stories could not be applied to black Africans.
As an example of such a 1970s viewpoint, here is Lester Bush’s description of a 1976 conversation with Nibley:
[Nibley] does not think the blacks are related to Cain, or the early Canaan, and probably not to Ham, Egyptus, Canaan or Pharaoh. He’s unsure but would guess now that Brigham Young was “wrong” relating blacks to Cain. He said–”we all have Negro blood”-there was intermixture everywhere. I asked about the accounts of the early patriarchs marrying apparent blacks. He exclaimed yes[.] I mentioned Moses–Yes. But the real “irony” was Joseph marrying a daughter of the priest of On–who he says by definition had to have been a Hamite–and their sons were Ephraim and Manasseh, who[m] we are all so proud to claim. He said it was as though the Lord was trying to tell us something.” (emphasis in original) Bush, “Writing ‘Mormonism’s Negro Doctrine: An Historical Overview’ (1973): Context and Reflections, 1998, ” JMH, 25:1 (Spring 1999), 268-269.
The Curse of Cain
Genesis chapter 4 reports that after killing Abel, “the Lord set a mark upon Cain, lest any finding him should kill him.” The account makes no reference to skin color. It says nothing to imply that whatever the mark was, it would also apply to Cain’s children (Nibley’s 1981 book Abraham in Egypt offered various interpretations of the “mark of Cain”–none of which included skin color).
In his 2003 book, The Curse of Ham: Race and Slavery in Early Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, Jewish Studies scholar David Goldenberg explains that a belief that Cain’s “mark” was black skin is a relatively recent phenomenon. It began first –and slowly– with a mistranslation in apocryphal Armenian literature from around the sixth century A.D.; the initial mistake was mistranslating the Genesis statement that Cain’s “countenance fell” as meaning Cain’s face turned dark. By the 17th and 18th centuries, he shows, a belief that the curse was black skin was becoming common in Europe, due in large part, presumably, to the economic usefulness of the belief in supporting the practice of enslaving black Africans. By Joseph Smith’s time, the belief was widespread among Christians in slaveholding America.
The Curses of Ham
In Genesis 9 Ham observes a drunk and unclothed Noah. Noah responds by enigmatically “cursing” Ham’s son Canaan: “Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren.” The text itself contains no reference to skin color and Noah doesn’t suggest the curse applies to Canaan’s descendants. Yet thousands of years later this curse was redirected to Ham and became a keystone in how European and American Christians justified African slavery.
How, why, and when did readers direct the curse at black Africans? After his exhaustive research of Jewish, Christian, and Islamic sources, Goldenberg concludes that seventh century Arabia is when and where an explicit link between blacks and slavery is made with the curse. He writes that this occurred precisely “when the Black became strongly identified with the slave class in the Near East, after the Islamic conquest of Africa.” It first appeared in the Christian West in the fifteenth century as Europe discovered Africa and started to trade slaves. Then, “As the Black slave trade moved to England and then America, the Curse of Ham moved with it.” (6)
Religious historian Benjamin Braude explains that over time the story of Ham and the curse was interpreted in many and inconsistent ways: “Ham was the archetypal Other. Whatever the phobia of the moment, Ham was it. In the course of his long history Ham was Egyptian, heretic, sinner, sodomite, Jew, Muslim, Mongol, Black, Asian, and African.” Among Christian readers, up until the 18th and 19th centuries, the “Curse of Ham” was likely to be viewed by Christians as an indictment of Jews, not blacks. In fact, Braude notes that medieval and later Christian iconography depicted Ham with “archetypal images of Jew-hatred — crooked nose, hunchback, pointed cap, bearded face,” and claims no Christian artist depicted Ham as a black person until the American Presbyterian Josiah Priest included a drawing of a black Ham in his 1843 book Slavery, as it Relates to the Negro.
Braude concludes that it was only in 18th and 19th century Europe and America, where scriptural support for slavery of black Africans became economically useful, that the story of Ham became commonly interpreted as a story of curse that involved dark skin. (7)
For Priest, the claim that Ham had black skin relied primarily on the argument that Ham’s name meant “black” (so he thought), so Ham must have been black. Others thought his name meant “hot,” and saw that as an indication he had settled in hot Africa. These assumptions about the meaning of Ham show up in JFS’s and BRM’s writings, and even in the LDS Bible Dictionary.
However, Goldenberg examines in detail the history of the interpretation of Ham’s name. He shows these meanings were developed in the centuries after Christ…thousands of years after the text was written. After reviewing of the word’s etymology in the involved languages (including Arabic, Aramaic, Coptic, Egyptian, Greek, Hebrew, Old South Arabian, Semitic, Syriac, and Ugaritic), Goldenberg concludes the biblical name Ham did not mean “black,” “dark,” “heat,” and was not related to the Egyptian or Semitic words for “black,” “dark,” or “hot.” He believes the mistaken interpretations developed in part because in reducing spoken Hebrew to written form two different phonemes were represented with one graphical symbol, leading to confusion between words that in oral Hebrew were distinguished.
Those are a few of the details from Goldenberg’s, Braude’s, and Haynes’ research. Their books and articles on this topic provide much more historical information and analysis on the ethnicity-focused readings of the Cain, Ham, and other biblical stories (such as the story of Nimrod). Goldenberg suggest that many readers in the era of the New World have misinterpreted these biblical texts “ultimately due to an assumption that the way things are now is the way things were in the past,” failing to realize “our perceptions of the Black have been conditioned by the intervening history of centuries of Black slavery and its manifold ramifications.”
(1) See Stephen Haynes, Noah’s Curse: The Biblical Justification of American Slavery (Oxford University Press, 2002).
(2) See, for example, Bringhurst’s chapter “The Missouri Thesis Revisited,” in Black and Mormon (University of Illinois Press, 2004).
(3) Quoted in in Lester E. Bush, Jr., “Whence the Negro Doctrine? A Review of Ten Years of Answers” in Neither White nor Black: Mormon Scholars Confront the Race Issue in a Universal Church ( Signature Books; 1984). See footnote 16 and the associated text.
(4) Among other of their writings, see Joseph Fielding Smith, The Way to Perfection (Genealogical Society of Utah, 1931, it had at least 18 printings, including by Deseret Book in 1984); In McConkie’s Mormon Doctrine, see, for example, entries on Cain, Ham, Caste Systems, and Races of Man.
(5) Among other of their works, see Lester E. Bush, Jr. “Mormonism’s Negro Doctrine: An Historical Overview.” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, 8:1 (Spring, 1973); Newell G. Bringhurst, Saints, Slaves, and Blacks: The Changing Place of Black People Within Mormonism (Greenwood Press: 1981); Arnold H. Green, “Gathering and Election: Israelite Descent and Universalism in Mormon Discourse,” Journal of Mormon History, Vol. 25 (Spring 99); Armand Mauss, All Abraham’s Children: Changing Mormon Conceptions of Race and Lineage (U. of Ill. Press: 2003).
(6) David M. Goldenberg, The Curse of Ham: Race and Slavery in Early Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (Princeton University Press, 2003)
(7) Benjamin Braude, “Cham et Noé. Race, esclavage, et exégèse entre Islam, Judaïsme, et Christianisme”, Annales: Histoire, Sciences Sociales, 57 (2002), no. 1, Jan-Feb, 93-125 (unedited English version); see also, Braude, “Ham and Noah: Sexuality, Servitudinism, and Ethnicity.”