Black in Mormonism: How the Priesthood-Temple Ban Became Fully Entrenched Policy 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

So now let’s zoom in, and let’s talk about that. First, false doctrine; second, false memories; then generational entrenchment. So let’s talk about the false doctrine. What are the two doctrinal points that get bandied back and forth as the kind of vying doctrinal justifications for banning blacks? We’ve already talked about Brigham Young’s justification. That those with the Curse of Cain cannot have priesthood because their ancestor committed a murder. What’s the other false doctrine?

The second one is that something happened in premortality that caused so that certain groups would not receive the priesthood when they came here. And it seems like Orson Pratt was primarily the person behind this one. 

I find this just super interesting and ironic, since Orson Pratt was the one that was most vehemently opposed to Brigham Young’s rationale in the 1852 legislative meetings, citing Cain’s curse as the reason why blacks should be enslaved. He himself questioned that that was even real. He said, “We don’t even know the blacks are descendants of Cain. Show me in the scriptures. Show me where that is.” And, of course, you can’t show that.

But what’s interesting is the very next year, 1853, he gives an alternate rationale for that, which is this premortality rationale: basically that blacks could not be punished for a murder that their ancestor committed, but they could be punished for some sort of action in premortality, right? He said, “If rewards and punishments are the results of good and evil actions, then it would seem that the good and evil circumstances under which the spirits enter this world must depend upon the good and evil actions which they had done in the previous world.” And so he says, “Blacks receive bodies among the African negroes in the lineage of Canaan, whose descendants were cursed pertaining to priesthood, because of something in the first estate.” So his rationale avoids endorsing the multi-generational curse of Cain while still giving a theological reason for a black restriction from priesthood participation. 

Now, by the way, the Church Gospel Topics essay explicitly is targeting both of these doctrines, right? Let me remind us, here’s what the Church Gospel Topics essay says on race and priesthood: it says, “Today the church disavows the theories advanced in the past that black skin is a sign of divine disfavor or curse,” that’s Brigham Young’s rationale, “or that it reflects unrighteous actions in a premortal life.” That’s Orson Pratt’s rationale. And both of those go against, again, Joseph Smith’s own teachings and precedent. Remember that Joseph had taught in the 1840s about blacks and whites in their environment. He said, “Change their situation with the whites, and the blacks would be like them.” And he insisted in 1844, “God created all men free and equal.
But now, fast forward a decade, and by the 1850s neither Brigham Young’s nor Orson Pratt’s rationales reflect Joseph’s view of equal standing in God’s eyes of the blacks. So, yeah, there’s been a decline in the last decade somehow.

Something that is interesting but also frustrating is that Orson Pratt seems to recognize the problems with Brigham Young’s argument by saying there’s no Mormon priesthood ban stated on the descendants of Cain. We’ve got two sources from the Joseph Smith papers that indicate that Brigham Young recognized the problems in Orson Pratt’s arguments. 

In the Council of Fifty minutes, the question comes up of, “Are black people in servitude because they did something in premortality?” In the Council of Fifty minutes, this is April 1845. Brigham Young said, “The spirits of the children of men are pure and holy without transgression or any curse upon them. The differences you see is on account of the circumstances that surround them.” So in 1845, he’s got it right. And then in 1869 the question comes up again, and Brigham Young addresses it even more directly: he says, “There were no neutral spirits in heaven at the time of the rebellion. All took sides. 

If anyone said he heard the prophet Joseph say that the spirits of blacks were neutral in heaven, he would not believe them, for he heard Joseph say to the contrary, all spirits are pure. They come from the presence of God.” And he’s going off of what section 93 of the Doctrine and Covenants teaches here, which is that everybody comes to earth innocent, free from any stain that may have happened in premortality. You get to start over.But it’s so tragic that these two couldn’t accept, basically, the arguments they used against each other to disprove what are the two most prominent theories for why this was put in place. And they’re totally both right in their arguments against each other. And so that is frustrating.

And we want to emphasize, you know, the church has disavowed any of these arguments today. Like, directly. Explicitly. In their own gentle way the church has basically said, “Yeah, this was a mistake. This was wrong reasoning.”

So that’s the first part, right? The first part is there’s this false doctrine that sort of keeps feeding this. And then, secondly, there’s the entrenchment that’s going to happen and is supported by a few episodes of false memory. So let’s get into the two or three major memory slips—all of which involve Elijah Ables.

Our listeners will remember we talked about him. He was the first black elder on record to be ordained, 1836 of January. He was ordained an elder. Later that year ordained a Seventy. He was washed and anointed in the temple in Kirtland, and in Nauvoo he’s part of the Seventies quorum there. A faithful elder. He served several missions. So Elijah Ables is awesome. He’s now old. It’s 1877. The same year that Brigham Young dies Elijah Ables’s wife, Mary Ann, dies. And there is some later recollection that Elijah Ables had asked Brigham Young if he could be sealed to his wife, but what we do know for sure is that he tried again, or he tried for the first time, in 1879, so—and his wife has now been deceased for two years, and he appeals to the new president of the church, John Taylor, to get permission to be endowed and then sealed to his recently deceased wife, Mary Ann.

John Taylor next decides to investigate the question because Elijah Able has been ordained to the priesthood. John Taylor’s acting as a 70 and now he’s not sure what to do about Elijah Able’s request to be sealed to his wife considering the current policy for black Mormons, so he does an investigation. This is another one of those things that clearly indicates there’s not a set policy in place or John Taylor would’ve just said, “Sorry, we don’t do that. There’s a policy. Brigham Young said in 1852 that we don’t do that.” That’s not what he says. He’s unsure of how to proceed yet.

So there’s no policy, so John Taylor goes about it in an investigative sort of way. He tries to find people who were there when Elijah was ordained, what the circumstances were, and wants to figure out. And that leads him to Provo, Utah where there are two people who have been tied to Elijah Able, and that’s Zebedee Coltrin and Abraham O. Smoot.

John Taylor is going to ask an apostle, Joseph F. Smith, to carefully look at Elijah Able’s ordination and what the circumstances were surrounding it. And this is where we start to run into some problems that cause problems down the line. So President Taylor goes to Abraham O. Smoot’s house in Provo, Utah. Zebedee Coltrin’s there, and he says, “You guys apparently have insider knowledge about Joseph Smith’s views on black people, so help me know what you know.” And yeah, this is where Abraham O. Smoot says to President Taylor that back in 1835-36, when he was on his mission in the Southern states, he said that he learned from some other missionaries that Joseph Smith had told them that slaves were not entitled to the priesthood, nor yet to be baptized without the consent of their masters. And then he says in 1838, Joseph Smith basically confirmed that to him personally. 

He said that “Joseph told me that I could baptize slaves by the consent of their masters, but not to confer the priesthood upon them.” Now, let’s say that Abraham O. Smoot is telling the truth here and that it’s a true memory. If that’s true, that does not say unilaterally that Joseph Smith believed that blacks should not be ordained to the priesthood. What that would say is slaves shouldn’t be ordained to the priesthood. What about all the blacks in the north?

We don’t know what Joseph was thinking there, if that’s an accurate memory. Again, I’m questioning this because it’s 40-plus years old. But that one’s not the doozy. It’s whatever. But it’s when he talks to Zebedee Coltrin next.

There’s been some controversy with Smoot because he was a slave owner. In fact, the administration building on campus at BYU is the Abraham O. Smoot building. There were some people that felt like the building needed to be renamed. Smoot was an honorable man, but I do think he was mistaken here, or he misinterpreted what Joseph Smith said.

Placing this close to 1835-36 puts us smack dab in the middle of the church’s controversies in Missouri which we discussed were largely linked to slavery and Mormon views on black people. There was maybe an overcompensation by leaders of the church during this time because they just basically wanted to say, “We’re not trying to ruffle anyone’s feathers here. If slavery is the law where you’re at, we’re not intending to interfere with that at all.” And that may have prompted Joseph Smith to make these statements.

We do have recorded instances of Joseph Smith taking a practical approach, where he’d say, “Yeah, you can teach a slave, but don’t do so without permission of their master,” because that’s what caused all those problems in Jackson County and continued during this time period to cause problems in Missouri generally, because Missouri was a slave state. 

So I guess my interpretation would be that Smoot misunderstood Joseph Smith and what he was going for because there’s so much evidence from the Nauvoo period that Joseph Smith did not hold some of these views that Smoot is assuming he held.

He’s clearly allowing Elijah Able and Q. Walker Lewis to be ordained. These are free black men—who are being ordained to the priesthood, and so that clearly would contradict that—his actions would contradict that, unless he meant specifically slaves should not be ordained, but free blacks, that was fine, right? There could be some layers of misinterpretation here.

Then John Taylor interviews Zebedee Coltrin, the one who had actually ordained Elijah Able as Seventy back in 1836, and Coltran tells President Taylor that Joseph had told him back in 1834, just after Zion’s camp, that blacks, “Have no right nor cannot hold the priesthood.” And he also said that he heard Joseph teach that “No person having the least particle of Negro blood can hold the priesthood.” Then as for Elijah Able’s being ordained a Seventy, which seems to contradict it, if Joseph had said that in 1834, why in the world would he let Elijah Able be ordained? Coltrin said that after Joseph learned of his lineage, he dropped Elijah from the Seventies quorum. 

That’s what Zebedee Coltrin said happened, right? And that’s, again, a 40-plus-year-old memory. And, unfortunately, those two memories by those two men in 1879 are going to provide the foundation for a generations-long tradition within Blacks in Mormonism that the priesthood ban originated with Joseph Smith.

To listen to the complete 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.

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.

About Mormonism Explained

Mormonism Explained is a resource that was designed to provide objective and factual information about Mormonism, its history, doctrines, and policies. Our team of researchers consults experts and primary sources to present factual information on a variety of topics relevant to the Mormon Church.