Black in Mormonism: 1852 and The Beginnings of the Priesthood-Temple Ban in the Church (Part 2)

Todd Noall

Todd Noall

Source Expert

Todd Noall is an author and religious scholar at Mormonism Explained with a focus on the history and theology of religion.

Fact Checked by Kevin Prince

Todd Noall

Todd Noall

Source Expert

Todd Noall is an author and religious scholar at Mormonism Explained with a focus on the history and theology of religion.

Fact Checked by Kevin Prince

To listen to the complete episode by Church History Matters, click here.

Blacks in Mormonism: After Joseph Smith’s Death

So let’s bridge the gap. We mentioned 1852 as a watershed moment. What happens between 1844, when Joseph Smith dies, and 1852? If 1852 is the year that there begins to be something of a development of the priesthood-temple restriction for Blacks in Mormonism, let’s talk about what happens in those intervening years. 

There were those in leadership positions in Joseph Smith’s day who held differing views from him about black inferiority. But because of their loyalty and deference to him, they went along with his inclusive, non-discriminatory approach, and they did not push back. But we see in the historical record that after Joseph Smith’s death, the influence of his posture and “policy,” I’m going to use that, air quotes, of racial inclusion, begins to erode.

Attitudes and doctrinal ideas that favor the narrative of black inferiority, which was so dominant in the United States already outside the church, those feelings that had been repressed before in Joseph Smith’s day, they slowly start to gain dominance in the minds of church leaders and members. Ideas such as that the black African race housed spirits who were less valiant in the premortal existence.

One year after Joseph Smith’s death, Orson Hyde expresses that blacks were the descendants of Cain and Ham, and thus they belonged to a cursed lineage, which was banned from priesthood privileges. That’s going to make inroads not too many years after Joseph’s death. And these are both ideas that have been explicitly and forcefully disavowed in the church’s Gospel Topics essays on race and priesthood in our day. But that’s when they start cropping up. It’s just after Joseph Smith’s death, and then in the intervening years between 1844 and 1852. 

I will say, it’s not as lockstep as we sometimes assume it is. One interesting thing that happened was in 2015, the church published the Council of Fifty minutes, and Council of Fifty is a political body, so they discussed political issues, and there’s no more hot-button political issue in the time than the status of black people.

There’s an example in the Council of Fifty minutes where Orson Hyde brings up this theory of, “Hey, maybe black people are in the state that they’re in because of something that happened in premortality.” And interestingly, Brigham Young shoots him down there, and then even after he’s elucidated his views on race in 1869, shoots Orson Hyde down twice, saying, “No, there’s nothing to do with premortality.” He cites section 93 of the Doctrine and Covenants, which says all people are born innocent here on Earth. And so to say that there’s one specific, “Hey, this is what we believe and why we are doing this during this time” is really not accurate to say. And evidence from this time is fragmentary. It’s impossible for us to get inside everybody’s head and say, “How did your view shift or change?”

But the Council of Fifty minutes, which—Joseph Smith leads the Council of Fifty from a few months before his death, and then Brigham Young takes over—do reveal that at least starting out, they believed in the equality of the races, and there was no set doctrine or teaching on why at that particular time, black people were in slavery and European people tended to dominate. And yet, over time, the broader Christian narrative about the Curse of Cain and Ham really does make inroads into the church, which is interesting.

You wouldn’t say “official doctrine,“ because not everyone agrees with that. Orson Pratt, for instance, pushes back really harshly against that idea. He says, “Prove it.” Like, “How do you know that? That’s not scriptural, and we don’t know that.” And yet both he and Orson Hyde would say it’s got to have something to do with premortality. But then Brigham Young would say it has nothing to do with premortality.

There is not agreement. There is not unity. But everyone’s trying to figure out—see, the assumption they were working from is there seems to be some inferiority with blacks to whites. Which, limited education, limited opportunities, right? Joseph Smith said make those all equal, and blacks are going to be equal with whites. But in that time, with less education, less opportunity, it did seem to a lot of people like that was a true statement, which would happen to any race if they were put down that way. So there is disagreement, and there’s people trying to figure it out doctrinally, but it’s all based on that assumption that there is some inherent inferiority.

There’s another thing, too, that I want to point out, which is that as the Saints move out of the United States, right, as they leave Nauvoo out of the more hostile environment there that they were experiencing in Nauvoo particularly and in the U. S. more generally, after Joseph Smith’s martyrdom, and they were able to move out to the seclusion and relative safety of the Utah territory, this is going to lower their collective racial restraint, if we can say it like that. That means that in Utah, church members and leaders are going to feel more free and unrestrained to express their views about blacks and to crystallize their own racial hierarchy. It’s a challenging phrase even to say out loud, “racial hierarchy,” but that does happen. It is established in Utah. 

As LDS historian Russell Stevenson put it, he says that being aggressively targeted and attacked as a people in the U.S. “seemed to solidify the Mormons’ racial identity. The time for racial experimentation was over, however long-suffering the Saints felt Joseph Smith to be toward the black community, they had no more patience for such things. Now, seeing Nauvoo, Illinois, even America, as a tinder box set to explode in the light of a looming millennial day, the Saints closed ranks. The act of moving to Utah created the space for the solidification of a white Mormon identity.” What a statement. 

So Utah territory was seen by many Saints as, like, a racial sanctuary for whites, where the white race would dominate and flourish. And while the few blacks who do live in Utah would do so as inferiors, submissively waiting for the Lord to remove the “curse from their skins,” or what some might refer to as the Curse of Cain, we have statements like that from W. W. Phelps, Eliza R. Snow has a poem, George Q. Cannon says some things—like, in 1852, here’s Eliza R. Snow. She says, “The curse of the Almighty rests upon the colored race. In his own time, by his own means, that curse will be removed.” So there is a curse one day that’ll be removed.

  1. W. Phelps in 1851 in Utah, for instance, I just want to drop some of these statements. You can see the thinking of the saints at the time. He says that Utah was the land where “the Jehovah-smitten Canaanite would bow in humble submission to his superiors and prepare himself for a mansion of glory when the black curse of disobedience shall have been chased from his skin by a glance from the Lord.” Geez. That’s uncomfortable to read.

But you see this idea that one day the blacks will be equal, but it is not this day, and Utah’s going to be the place where they will “bow in humble submission to [their] superiors.” George Q. Cannon, decades later, one of the church leaders there, he said, “The purity of the Caucasian race is more likely to be preserved in our territory than in many other portions of the United States.” This was the idea that Utah could be this racial sanctuary where we no longer have to experiment, like Joseph Smith was, with racial equality, and a lot of people in the church felt relieved by that.

So that’s in the background. That’s going to play out in the context in which Brigham Young is going to feel very comfortable saying certain things that we need to get into now in 1852.

While we’re talking about Utah being separate from the rest of the country, too, let’s try and center this in the larger American context. It wasn’t uncommon in the 19th century for a politician, even a politician as progressive as someone like Abraham Lincoln, to talk about the solution to the race problem to be to separate the races, not to integrate the races, right?

A really progressive person in the 1840s or 1850s was someone that was saying, “Hey, we should move all black people back to Africa.”

“There’s no way that the two races are going to be able to intermingle, and they shouldn’t intermingle.” And I’ve gone across sites where statements made by Abraham Lincoln are termed to be racist, and by today’s standards, they sound racist, but the goal during this time wasn’t necessarily to integrate the races, it was to keep the races “pure.” And a lot of people felt like the best way to do that was to separate them.

Like we mentioned, almost every state in the United States had a law on the books against interracial marriage, and this goes on until the 1960s. And in the early 20th century, it wasn’t considered weird for Teddy Roosevelt to give a speech where he says, “We must safeguard the purity of the Teutonic race.”

If somebody’s talking about a pure Germanic race today, that sets off all kinds of alarm bells in our heads, because we’ve realized, “Hey, these are our fellow human beings.” But the prevailing thought of not just the saints but everybody in the 19th century, was that the races should not intermingle, that if you were a really progressive person you were basically saying they should be separate but equal, and there was only a tiny minority that felt like they could racially mix with each other. And so the saints, I’m sad to say, aren’t outside the mainstream in saying some of these things and that could contribute to the question being asked, “Are Mormons Racist?”.

And while putting them in Utah gave them spectator status to the ongoing racial strife that was happening in the rest of the United States, they’re not outside the norm, I guess you’d say, among white Europeans in the 19th century, to elucidate some of these views. So it’s difficult for us, because this is repugnant to us in the 21st century. But if you travel back in time, we might be really surprised at the extent that they would say things that today set off alarm bells, like, “We have to preserve the white race,” or, “We have to maintain our racial purity,” which we’ve seen the roads that can lead down and how dangerous it is, but it’s not till the mid 20th century when we start to, as a society, learn those lessons.

So we need to talk about Winter Quarters for just a second. On the journey from Nauvoo to Utah, we’re in Winter Quarters, Nebraska, which at that time was just not the United States. That’s just out West. This is Indian territory. It’s beyond the frontier. And we set up a place called Winter Quarters, where we prepare to go out the next spring and make the final run to Utah. It’s in winter quarters 1847 where the first of what Russell Stevenson calls the “twin shocks” of 1847 occurs, which helps us to start to see why church leaders might have started becoming a little more aggressive toward a position of a racial restriction. 

Now, it involves a fellow by the name of William McCary, who was a black man who had joined the church. He had married a white sister, which was very suspect to a lot of members of the church, right? And he was being persecuted by church members there. He was being treated poorly. So he actually approaches the brethren. He approaches Brigham Young, the Quorum of the Twelve, and he asks for their help and their protection from persecution. The minutes of this meeting are really interesting. 

So this is March of 1847, and he says, “All I ask is will you protect me? I’ve come here and I’ve given myself out to be your servant.” Then Brigham Young makes some interesting and great statements, actually. He says, “Brother, it’s nothing to do with blood, for of one blood has God made all flesh.” And that’s a close paraphrase of Acts 17:26, which was, by the way, the one verse that Joseph Smith quoted in his presidential platform about his position on Blacks in Mormonism and slavery is “God has made of all nations one flesh.” We’re all one blood. So Brigham Young saying, “Actually, that’s not an issue. We don’t care about the race.” In fact, he goes on to say, race isn’t an issue. His own words are, “We have one of the best elders, an African in Lowell, Massachusetts,” referring to Q. Walker Lewis.

And a bit later in the conversation, McCary says, “Well, I want you to intercede for me. I’m not a priest or a leader of the people, but I’m just a common brother because I’m a little shade darker,” to which Brigham Young replied, “We don’t care about the color.” Then McCary looks at the other brother and says, “Do I hear that from all of you?” And they all say, “Aye.” So this is great. As of March of 1847, we cannot yet detect anything remotely resembling priesthood restriction. 

That would’ve been a great chance for Brigham Young to explain, had there been one, right? His statements are all, “No. One of our best elders is an African, Q. Walker Lewis in Massachusetts. We don’t care about color. God has made of all humanity one flesh. We’re all one blood.” And so we see that Brigham Young is actually still, in 1847, reflecting that inclusive spirit exhibited by Joseph Smith. And so mark 1847 of March as a great moment here, but then it starts to transition just a month or two later. Anything you want to say about that?

Just that this episode is incredibly complex, right? And it demonstrates that as late as 1847, there’s no priesthood policy in the church. There’s no thought about implementing anything like that, but William McCary is also the catalyst, it appears—and we’re doing some detective work here with incomplete sources. We don’t have the whole picture—but you can deduce that from some of the things that happen surrounding William McCary is where the first inklings of some sort of exclusion starts to take place in their mind. Because you’ve got Brigham Young right there saying, “Nah. It doesn’t have anything to do with race.”

But then a few things happen after that cause him to be concerned, and it seems like from here to 1852 is where it starts to develop in his mind and where he’s going to fully explain it in 1852.

So the next month, April 1847, McCary starts doing weird stuff, outside of the topic of Black Mormons. Not only has he married a white woman, but he now starts to practice his own little version of plural marriage where he starts marrying a bunch of white women. And the way that they consummate the marriage, his wife is there, and then there’s a consummation, and things are getting weird when the word gets out that William McCarry is polygamous marrying white women. And then he starts to profess that he is, like, some great prophet himself. He said weird stuff, like that he was Father Adam, whose spirit had transmigrated into his body and that he was some great one. Apparently he was a good ventriloquist. He’d throw his voice and try to show that he was some spiritually important man.

So he’s going to get run out of town. He’s going to get excommunicated. And when some members of the church still show a tendency to want to be with William McCary, or to be part of his version of Mormonism, Parley P. Pratt, he vents his frustration about Latter-day Saints who would, here you go, “want to follow this black man who’s got the blood of Ham in him, which lineage was cursed as regards the priesthood.” There you go. That’s the first recorded statement of a church leader that connects the curse of Ham to a priesthood restriction in the church.

And Parley was just drawing upon the well-worn, centuries-old, Protestant readings of the Ham story, but he’s giving it a little LDS priesthood twist with a paraphrase language of Abraham chapter 1, verse 26. And so he’s resorting to that move. He makes that maneuver as a sort of defensive measure to try to deter church members in Winter Quarters from defecting over to William McCary’s warped version of Mormonism. And so it’s a defensive move spoken in frustration, but his statement is the first we find on record that hints of some sort of priesthood restriction connected to black Africans.

So that’s the first. Now, how much does that affect Brigham Young? We’re not sure. It’s never referred to as any kind of precedent for withholding privileges from blacks, but what it does reveal is that, again, some church leaders at this time are harboring some old Protestant beliefs about black Africans descending from Ham’s supposed cursed lineage, and that’s going to start to make inroads in the church.

Like I said, this episode illustrates where they were at, but also where they’re going to. And Parley P. Pratt and elucidating that, like you said, is using the common thought of the day. It was a common assumption among 19th century Europeans in America, that black people were descendants of Cain. The Bible doesn’t say that. It never elucidates what the Curse of Cain or Ham is, but they had basically taken the Bible and applied it to their own situation. Definitely went further than what the biblical text was saying.

We’re going to see a little less than a year after learning about this debacle, in the minutes of a meeting in Salt Lake City that Brigham Young had begun sharing with other members of the Twelve his view that black Africans were indeed the cursed descendants of Cain. So what Parley P. Pratt says in Winter Quarters is going to become Brigham Young’s go-to justification for a priesthood restriction going forward. So again, what the exact connection was between Parley and Brigham here, we don’t know, but we know the same sort of thinking starts to prevail in the leadership circles of the church. All right. 

To listen to the complete Church History Matters podcast episode, visit

By Todd Noall, Source Expert

Todd Noall is an author and religious scholar at Mormonism Explained with a focus on the history and theology of religion.

By Todd Noall, Source Expert

Todd Noall is an author and religious scholar at Mormonism Explained with a focus on the history and theology of religion.

Fact Checked by Mr. Kevin Prince, Source Expert

Kevin Prince is a religious scholar and host of the Gospel Learning Youtube channel. His channel has garnered over 41,000 subscribers and accumulated over 4.5 million views. Mr. Prince also created the Gospel Learning App, a reliable platform where individuals seeking truth can access trustworthy answers to religious questions from top educators worldwide.

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