Black in Mormonism: 1852 and The Beginnings of the Priesthood-Temple Ban in the Church (Part 3)

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.

The Mormon Priesthood Ban

Now, the second of the twin shocks of 1847 actually deals with Q. Walker Lewis. That priesthood man, who Brigham Young said was one of our best elders.

  1. Walker Lewis and his son Enoch Lewis live at that time in Massachusetts. And an elder named William Applebee was on assignment to visit Eastern Church branches, and he visited the Massachusetts branch, and he was scandalized, first by the fact that he found a Black Mormons who’d been ordained to the priesthood. Apparently he wasn’t aware of Q. Walker Lewis.

But more troubling still to Applebee was the fact that Lewis’s son Enoch was married to a white woman named Mary Webster and that they had a baby. And Applebee, he writes a letter expressing his concerns to Brigham Young, and the two later are going to meet in person at Winter Quarters on December 3, 1847 with a majority of the Twelve there. That meeting’s going to last over five hours, but all we have from that meeting are thirteen lines of notes. That’s it. And those lines mostly express their concern over interracial marriage.

They’re disgusted by it. Which, again, is a common theme throughout the 19th century of, “Hey, the races can be equal, but they can’t mix.” Even a progressive person, for the most part, would say that.

This is where we’re going to get our first recorded instance of Brigham Young’s hyperbolic expression that capital punishment should be the penalty for interracial marriage and mixing and having mixed-race offspring. It’s where we have recorded his belief that the offspring of mixed race marriages would be sterile, as many believed in his day, as we’ve talked about.

And these kind of statements are good examples of what Elder Quentin L. Cook was talking about when he spoke at BYU. He said, “Brigham Young said things about race that fall short of our standards today. Some of his beliefs and words reflected the culture of his time.” Totally, right? Brigham Young’s clearly not drawing from any revelations from the Lord on these views, but from the cultural beliefs of his time, the chief of which being the fear of race mixing. And to be clear, it’s this fear of race mixing that seems to be at the heart of Brigham Young’s concerns about black equality in the church.

And from the fragmentary historical record we have, it seems to begin developing at least by 1847, when he found out first that William McCary was marrying white women in the church and then defiantly began his own brand of Mormonism after his excommunication. That’s shock number one. And then later that year when he found out that Enoch Lewis had married a white woman and that they had a child together, that’s shock number two. So interracial marriage was beginning to make inroads in the church, on top of Blacks in Mormonism, and that made a lot of members nervous, including Brigham Young, as we know from his own strong statements on the topic. Where would it stop, right?

So this fear of race mixing seems to account for what’s ultimately underlying Brigham Young’s reversal from 1847 when he said, “We don’t care about the color, and one of our best elders is an African,” to 1852, when he said, essentially, “We do care about the color, and no Africans have a right to be an elder in this church.” Just Elder Cook’s statement that you quoted there, I want to go back to that for just a second. 

See, part of the struggles I’ve had with this is that question over prophetic infallibility. Where I don’t want to get ahead of the leaders of the church in saying these views were incorrect, or church leaders were in error. But Elder Cook basically said that, “Brigham Young said some things about race that fall short of our standards today.” I also think Elder Cook was thoughtful enough to add in the second statement, which is just as important to say, “Some of his beliefs and words reflected the culture of his time.” Yeah. That’s a—functionally a member of the Quorum of the Twelve, and then you’ve got the Gospel Topics essay on Race and the Priesthood. And even going back to the 1960s, where the first presidency issues a statement, saying, “Stop giving explanations for the priesthood policy. We don’t know.” Are all leaders of the church saying they were in error?

So if we’re trying to say, “Hey, for prophetic infallibility, do we have other prophets saying that they were incorrect?” Yeah, we do. And that’s OK. They’re trying to lead us with charity to say they reflect the world that they lived in. And they made mistakes, when it comes down to it. Like I said, go back and review some of the outside literature from sources outside the church. On top of Black Mormons, racial amalgamation was a huge fear in the 1840s and ’50s that had all kinds of weird iterations that came out that today we know aren’t accurate. But at the time were not only seen as the spiritual consensus of the day, I mean, biblical interpretation, but also the scientific consensus of the day, so they made a mistake.

But like Elder Cook said, their actions reflect the environment that they lived in. And it’s just to think about how patient and merciful God is to allow for that kind of thing to happen with leaders of the church as well as the rest of us, like he’s going to let this work itself out. And it does work itself out, though it takes maybe, again, a lot longer than some people like me, who are very impatient, would’ve preferred. But God has the long game in view, and it’s all going to work out. But this is going to take us, again, more than a century to get there. But a great perspective.

So again, this is all detective work, trying to piece together things that happened in 1847 that are going to lead to 1852 when Brigham Young first publicly announces the policy, but there’s actually some nuance and complexity surrounding how the policy was announced. 

For instance, I was surprised to see that it wasn’t announced in an official church epistle or even in a general conference. It was announced in a legislative session, which is weird, right? We wouldn’t expect church practice to be determined in a session of the Utah legislature. But at this time, Brigham Young’s wearing a couple hats. He is the president of the church. He is the governor of the Utah Territory. He is the superintendent of Indian Affairs. And it’s in a discussion about political policy that this statement comes out. So this is maybe a big piece of evidence in when we’re saying, “Hey, to even call it a policy at this point in time might be stretching it.”

It doesn’t seem like there was a ton of forethought or reflection on what the long-term implications would be. And also the record shows that there wasn’t total consensus, either.

A little bit of background here, we’re in January 1852, and as you said, this is in a Utah territorial legislative meeting where Brigham Young as governor and several apostles as the legislative body, they were debating the passing of a bill that would essentially legalize a form of African slavery in the recently created Utah territory, right? And this is a territory which had been neutral on the issue of slavery up to this point, although there were already at least 40 slaves living in the territory. So slavery already existed here, but it was by custom, not by law. Some members of the church from the South had brought their slaves with them, and that’s how that happened. So it’s during the first of these legislative sessions, January 23, where Governor-president Young makes his position clear, showing that his politics were fully intertwined with his theology regarding Blacks in Mormonism. They’re not really differentiating during these legislative sessions at all. 

So Governor Young argues for slavery, and it’s a benevolent form of slavery, where the masters are benevolent to their servants, but he makes a two-step move to make his argument for slavery in the Utah territory. He says, number one, that God cursed Cain. So he’s going to use a biblical argument here: God cursed Cain, the Curse of Cain, saying that his descendants would not receive priesthood until the last of Abel’s descendants received it. Consequently, he says, this is move two, “I am firm in the belief that Cain’s seed ought to dwell in servitude.” It’s a little bit of a convoluted argument, right?

Let’s think about it for a second. Because the Bible says that Cain is cursed, and then Brigham Young adds “as pertaining to the priesthood,” consequently, “I’m firm that Cain’s seed should dwell in servitude.” It’s really interesting thin argument that is also not scripturally awesome. As we’ve talked about, the Cain argument is built on the faulty assumptions, again, that one, black Africans are the descendants of Cain; that the curse of Cain had to do with restricting priesthood, number two; and that this curse was somehow passed down to all of Cain’s descendants in the modern age. So it’s quite problematic on many levels. And then, as you said, not all the legislative body agreed, right?

Orson Pratt vehemently disagrees with Brigham Young. So a few days later on January 27, we have the minutes of that meeting, and Orson Pratt passionately expresses the fact that they, the apostles, have received no commandment from God to inflict any curse upon black Africans. He’s arguing specifically about slavery, not a priesthood ban, but his arguments are applicable to both.

And then a week later on February 4 Orson gives another impassioned speech, to which the next day Brigham Young gives a response speech, where he doubles down on his curse of Cain reasoning. And he says that even if no prophet or apostle has ever declared blacks to be the children of Cain before, he says, “I’ll declare it.” So you can tell that Orson Pratt was pushing back on that assumption, right? “How do we even know?” In fact, I have a quote from Orson here. It’s not from the legislative meetings, but from 1856, so this would be four years later, he says, “We have no proof that the Africans are the descendants of old Cain who was cursed. And even if we had that evidence, we have not been ordered to inflict that curse upon that race,” he says.

And so I imagine on February 4, Orson Pratt saying something like that, because we get Brigham Young’s response the next day, saying, “If there never was a prophet,” I’m quoting directly now, “If there never was a prophet or apostle of Jesus Christ spoke it before, I tell you this people that are commonly called negroes are the children of old Cain. I know they are, and I know they cannot bear rule in the priesthood,” he says, “for the curse on them was to remain upon them until the residue of the posterity of Michael and his wife receive the blessings.” This will be a common argument that he will make over the next few years.

And can I just point out that this would be really weird to a 21st-century Latter-day Saint? So it illustrates, this isn’t as cut and dry as we think it is. It just shows that there wasn’t total uniformity in the tolerance of Black Mormons. They were having a debate, going back and forth. And so there needs to be caution in quoting a statement from this and saying, “That’s what the doctrine is,” right? Because it’s clear that they’re discussing back and forth, and there’s not unanimity, and Orson Pratt is basically saying, “God hasn’t commanded us to do this,” which seems to indicate that there’s no kind of revelatory command to put this in place. They’re creating policy. We’re getting to see how the sausage is made, basically, and it’s messy. And therefore we need to be cautious when we take statements like the ones from this meeting and just say, “That proves what the Latter-day Saints believed at the time.”

There’s complexity. There’s views. There’s back-and-forth on each one of these things. And to be honest with you, to me it’s kind of encouraging to see that Brigham Young wasn’t absolutely, 100 percent, “this is my word and you’re going to do it.” He was allowing the discussion to go back and forth. He’s rebutting. People are rebutting him. It’s not a set in stone, “this is the way it is because God told me it’s this way,” kind of thing.

He never claims in this meeting or anywhere else, actually, that God inspired him to institute some sort of a priesthood restriction, and so I think we should be careful not to claim what Brigham Young himself did not claim. He never says that.

He never says, “This is the word of the Lord. This is what the Lord told me to do.” In fact, in that same meeting, let me just quote one more quote. He says this in response to Orson Pratt, “I may vary in my views.” Interesting. “I may vary in my views from others, and they may think that I’m foolish in the things that I have spoken,” read: Orson Pratt, “and they might think that they know more than I do,” but then he says, “but I know more than they do.” So we see this back and forth between, especially, Brigham Young and Orson Pratt here. But I find it, again, encouraging that he’s acknowledging that he’s giving his views. Right? He’s not saying, “I’m giving the word of the Lord here.”

He’s saying, ‘here’s my views on the topic. I believe that black Africans are descendants of Cain who have been given the Curse of Cain and shouldn’t hold priesthood, and therefore that servitude in Utah territory is OK and justified,’ right? As much as we might disagree with everything about that statement, and what’s important to highlight is that he’s saying, ‘That’s my view. And I know people disagree with my view, and that’s OK, but I’m right and they’re wrong,’ he says. 

To listen to the complete Church Matters History 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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