Priesthood “Restrictions”

First, a perennial reiteration: the First Presidency has disavowed all teachings, beliefs, and doctrines promoted by Church leaders in connection with the temple and priesthood restriction against Black people, including the idea that “black skin or dark skin is the sign of a curse.” [n1] These ideas are a pernicious cancer upon the Body of Christ.

Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and other church leaders were entirely supportive of Black men being ordained to priesthood offices during JS’s lifetime. However, some texts from JS’s revelatory corpus were subsequently used to justify racist policies and practices. Earlier this year I wrote about some responses to the question of whether or not the historic temple and priesthood restriction against Black people was mistaken. I repeated the proposition that the Books of Moses and Abraham have largely been misread though an Atlantic cultural context that sustained the enslavement of Black people.

The Book of Abraham does include details about the founding line of Pharaohs who did “not have the right of Priesthood”—analogical to the right of primogeniture. Because Abraham’s “fathers” adopted of the Egyptian religion, he similarly did “not have the right of Priesthood.” He was in the exact same boat as the Egyptians. However, Abraham was different. He rejected his fathers’ religion and he appealed to God’s true priests. Because of his righteousness, he “became a rightful heir.” Check out the link for the complete argument.

Joseph Smith revealed the first portion of the Book of Abraham, which includes this narrative, in Kirtland. He was then forced to flee to Missouri, where the Missouri-Mormon war ensued, and he was ultimately held prisoner in the Liberty Jail. While in the jail, JS delivered one of his greatest contributions to the world—letters, extracts of which are now canonized in D&C 121-123.

We have several indications that JS had been pondering the Abraham revelation within the text, perhaps anticipating what I have had the tendency of calling his “Nauvoo cosmology” where priesthood became inextricable from family. [n2] In section 121 we have references to priesthood and family, and, I believe, the only clear priesthood “ban” in all of scripture. Verse 21 describes a group of people:

They shall not have right to the priesthood, nor their posterity after them from generation to generation.

This seems entirely evocative of the Book of Abraham narrative, but who is “they” referring to in the text? Per vs. 16-23 it seems to be referring to the Missourians (including disaffected church members), who participated in or aided the war against the Saints. Again, this is clearly not only a priesthood restriction, but the priesthood restriction—one that passes from parent to child, from generation to generation. Read it again, and let it sink in.

The tricky thing, of course, is that we have plenty of Chiefs fans in the church today. They participate in every aspect of temple worship and are ordained to priesthood offices. I went to high school in Missouri, and never once did I meet someone who was restricted from these activities and offices. Even proximate to this revelation, many of those who would seem to clearly fall under this restriction, like W.W. Phelps, repented, came back to the church, filled priesthood offices, and participated in the temple ceremonies in Nauvoo. In the following decades when our Black brothers and sister cried out for full fellowship, missionaries gladly proselytized in Clay County.

If we take both the text and Joseph Smith’s subsequent actions seriously, a few possible interpretations emerge. It appears that the priesthood restriction in vs. 21 was descriptive, not prescriptive. If you battled the Saints—spoiled their fields, rended their bodies, and chased them from among you—then you will certainly be like Abraham’s fathers and the Pharaohs with whom they worshipped. You will not have priesthood, unable to pass it to your kin. Perhaps your children will be like Abraham, though. They will repent and through righteousness become rightful heirs. Their scepter will be an unchanging scepter of righteousness and truth; and their dominion shall be an everlasting dominion without compulsory means, forever.

____________

  1. See the Gospel Topics Essay on Race and the Priesthood, and statements by Elder Gary E. Stevenson and the church spokesman Eric Hawkins last year.
  2. Sam Brown’s recent work pulls this forward, and honestly, you need to brace yourself for Kris Wright’s doctoral research.

Comments

  1. Really interesting, J. Thanks.

  2. Interesting to think of these ideas in relation to priesthood restriction on women.

  3. Where can I read Kris Wright’s doctoral research?

  4. J. Stapley says:

    Thanks all. Susan, she is currently dissertating, so it will be a bit before it is in circulation.

  5. Roger Hansen says:

    Just as a personal note, I’m tired of all references to curses, bans, and other discriminatory actions. It has severely tainted our history. Discussions that make even the slightest justification for them need to be curtailed. It sounds like this one could have evolved into a justification for MMM.

    My neighbor is Hopi, is he cursed with a brownish skin? A good friend is Navajo, how about his skin color?

    I have friends who are gay/lesbian? How could this happen? Maybe something in the preexistence? Why would God require them to live monkish lives?

    I live 2 months a year in Africa. There are members outside of Africa who still believe the priesthood/temple ban was from God. Really? The Africans are people just like you and I.

    Please end all talk of curses, bans, and other discriminatory actions.

  6. On a personal note, I’ve known Kris Wright for many years. Her work is top notch and definitely reflects the kind of scholarship sorely needed.

  7. Thanks for your continuing analysis of this long-standing problem, J. You’ve helped me process it in much more productive ways than I’ve seen modeled in the past.

  8. Roger Hansen, what you are saying is that we need to edit a lot of text out of the Book of Mormon.

  9. Roger Hansen says:

    Bert, if that’s what it takes to end discrimination, yes. My neighbor is not a Lamanite. Blacks aren’t cursed because of some allegory in the OT. The sins of the parents don’t result in curses on their offspring. President Oaks recently gave a talk on the tension between those advocating religion freedom and those who are anti-discriminatory. What he failed to discuss was that the two don’t need to be mutually exclusive. Christ’s religion should be inclusive. That’s one of the lessons from the NT.

  10. I’m intrigued and looking for Kris Wright’s work. Based on the footnote alone it could be work I imagined but never did some years ago. That would be great.

    J. is this the first or only place you have written about the curse of the Missourians? It seems familiar (from you).

    I looked twice at the Brigham Young reference and note the “during JS’s lifetime” qualifier. Is there an effort (individual, concerted, or otherwise) to roll back some of Brigham’s innovations or changes?

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